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Permaculture Principles in Missions

In coming to Swaziland, southern Africa, my husband Sean and I imagined permaculture might play a role in our garden or mission work. However, it wasn’t until we found ourselves at a Permaculture Design Course in South Africa that we realized how interwoven the principles and practices of permaculture were becoming in our practices, garden, and missional intent. As a way to establish a permanent culture of living, permaculture principles encourage communities to be imaginatively resourceful and resilient. These applied principles shape our production of food, the design of residential areas, as well as our community work.

In reflection, we saw how permaculture principles echo Christian ethics. We have nuanced our Christian missionary perspectives in light of permaculture principles and practices. It is through the collective, collaborative lens of permaculture and Christian ethics that we view our work. It is from this place that we move out, going about our business of bringing a little more of Christ into our corner of the world.

Observe and Interact

“Observation of nature gives us firsthand experience, as opposed to books, teachers, Internet, which are 2nd and 3rd hand sources. We need to observe, recognize patterns and appreciate details that may often be small, slow, subtle, cyclical or episodic.” 1

When first looking at a piece of land, dreaming of what redemption can come to the soil and people, what plants will grow to feed us, what trees will thrive to shade us, and what animals will prosper to help us in our work, the first place we start is water.

We look at where our closest water source lies and how the water moves across the landscape. We examine where the water pools and where it runs quickly. We observe how the water rushes across the ground during a hard rain. After water, we watch how the sun moves throughout a day, throughout the change of seasons. We watch long enough to see which animals and birds venture across this space, even interacting with them, following them to their holes or nests, learning where they come from, what they do, and where they go. We see neighbors and how they use our common fence line, their patterns of living and moving. Hopefully, in the intentional watching, we learn what not to touch or change and what energy we can use and how. From these observations, we begin to build a plan, a design for the space that incorporates our findings.

This permaculture principle, like all of them, is cyclical. You begin by listening and observing. You determine a necessary action and start moving toward that action. Then you realize your actions are not received well, so you stop and listen some more. When you think you’ve observed and dabbled in interactions enough, you start movement again.

Author, activist, and educator Bill McKibben addresses how “big” we humans have become, especially concerning science, the world’s working, and specifically the climate. In an interview with Krista Tippet on Speaking of Faith, he recalls the last three chapters of Job, when God responds to Job’s incessant begging for answers and reasons why he has suffered.2

Just when Job is feeling big, like maybe he has some answers, as if he could teach the Creator a thing or two, God responds. “Where does the light come from, and where does the darkness go?” (38:19).3 “Have you given the horse its strength or clothed its neck with a flowing mane?” (39:19). The mere questions from God shrink Job back to being small again. He seems content to acknowledge, “I was talking about things I knew nothing about” (42:3). Job seems content to become small and let the shrinking happen, recognizing God is God and Job is not.

In our current world, it is easy to assume we have the answers. As McKibben points out, reading God’s questions for Job through today’s lens, we could respond, “Hell yes!”4 Hell yes I know the morning light comes from the earths’ rotation and orbit around the sun. Hell yes, we can breed a horse for its strength or (heaven help us) genetically modify its DNA so it has a silkier mane. In all that we Westerners do we can easily find the answer of how and why. The mystery is erased.

McKibben continues, “We have become very big. Our job is to get small again.”5 Creation has begun to reap the harvest of humanity becoming too big. Problems of soil loss and degradation in large-scale agriculture; giant corporations who cannot loan to the poor on company policy; and the waste that nation after nation has no place for. It’s time to become small again.

Richard Rohr calls this idea “the beginner’s mind.” In Everything Belongs, this Franciscan priest and author points out that we must not journey through life assuming we know, assuming we see, but we “must always be ready to see anew.”6

In Luke 18, we encounter an image of Christ welcoming the little children to him. He admonishes his listeners that “anyone who does not receive the Kingdom of God like a child will never enter it” (v. 17). The beginner’s mind. Getting small again. Shrinking the ego, the brain-with-all-the-answers, stepping out of the center, and allowing God to orient us. Allowing us to learn together, re-center ourselves in humility, and begin through questions.

Quieting our have-all-the-answers minds in order to allow the child-like mind to step forward, Sean and I entered into our new lives in Swaziland. Learning from the mistakes of former mission workers who graciously shared with us, we sought not to have answers but questions, not only to talk about valuing local talent but also to have community leaders guide us. We intentionally moved slowly for the first six months, focusing on listening and learning over teaching and telling. Learning siSwati. Learning how to get around. Listening to the people around us, talking to other missionaries, getting to know whatever Swazi we came across, and speaking to NGO workers. We asked questions instead of giving answers.

Our six months of intentional listening spilled into nine months, then a year. In that time we slowly began more “work.” Out of such listening came eventual pursuits in response to our community. Sean started a garden with Make (Mrs.) Lulane on a common piece of land; I taught expecting moms at the hospital. Sean researched and introduced fuel-efficient stoves to some Swazi friends; I helped my first doula client. Slowly, the word spread as it does in a small town where everyone walks and has plenty of time in that walk to chat. Invitations happened.

“The people of Masini are asking if you will come and show them this stove.”

“Can you help my friend who is also pregnant?”

And with the invitations, we walked deeper into the neighborhood. Sean kept returning to Masini, a town just 2.5 miles from our little rented place. A proper Swazi community, everyone hauled their bathing, cooking, and drinking water from the Mkhondvo River. During the rainy season, most people planted maize on their homesteads. A few adventurous folks planted moringa trees, okra, cabbage, and Swiss Chard.

It was to this community that Make Lulane begged us to move. Not so she could gain anything from us. Not so we might build her a house, or bring electricity or television. No, she insisted, “You want to live in a community, so I will give you land. Come to my home. Be my neighbor. My husband and I are happy with this. We will take nothing from you. I just want you to have a home where you can start your work.”

She begged us so desperately once that I told Sean, “We have to seriously consider moving onto her land. If we keep refusing, she may become offended.” Make Lulane’s invitations highlight a crucial piece of our application of the “observe and interact” principle. We had hoped that by watching folks, listening, and interacting with them, that they might invite us to live with them. “Why don’t you move here?” traverses culture and language much better than “We decided to purchase a prime piece of real estate in a community where no one wanted us, or a place that did not fit our needs because we jumped in too quickly.”

As life would have it, the family we sub-leased our servant’s quarters-house from was moving soon. Forced to find a new home, Sean headed into Masini. A friend took him to a nice rondavel (round house with thatched roof) with a fenced property and flat, agricultural land. Two weeks later we moved into a community where we were invited—into a community that oriented herself along the river.

Such invitation and welcome seems to be fruit from our slow movement, listening ears, asking mouths. Our attempts to speak siSwati impress our neighbors, telling them, “I care enough about you to learn to speak your language.” And we are not only interested in the language of their tongues but of their lives, their gardens, their birthing experiences, and their education. We hope our interest will eventually turn into a way for us to come together, learning to speak a larger, louder language of grace and love that causes the whole of the nation to turns its head towards Masini, to observe and interact with the way we are living here, next to our river, amongst each other, and on our homesteads.

Use Edges and Value the Marginal

“The interface between things is where the most interesting events take place. These are often the most valuable, diverse and productive elements in the system.”

Edges attract a lot of activity, being a crossroads and meeting place for creatures and people alike. For example, the edge where a forest and meadow meet has more activity than deep in the forest or in the wide-open meadow. At our place, the fence edge gets a lot of action. Neighbors’ cows chow anything sticking through to their side of the fence; the goats shove their heads through gaps and demolish anything on the borders. Children run to the fence and greet us as we work in the garden. Our dog respects the edge, not venturing beyond it. Birds sit here, chirping and tweeting, cleaning themselves and scoping the next seed-extraction site. We’ve spent as many hours patching, building, and adding to the fence as cultivating the space it protects. Action happens at the fence. There’s activity on the edge.

So too with Christ. He spent his ministry not only on the streets, but also in the synagogue. His healings happened on the road; people gathered in open places to hear him teach. He, himself, was an edge. He drew together people from the margins and people from the “in” crowds of society. His kingdom was and is for the rich and poor, the educated and uneducated, the sinners and the “righteous”—for all. His way of living wasn’t like “us” or like “them;” he created a new way, a third way.

Turn the other cheek. Give them your cloak. It’s not just a literal admonishment for non-violence or charity, but an invitation to live in a third way. In Jesus’ way, when we’re smacked, we don’t hit back, and we don’t walk away. We look our assailant in the eye and boldly offer our other cheek and allow the weight of our presence to be felt and acknowledged. In such reactions lie a tinge of subversion and humble rejection of societal norms. Through such subversion of our systems people begin to question: What is this other way? Our echoing of Jesus’ third way raises eyebrows and the people lean in. Watching. Waiting. Listening. Eager for what we’ll show them.

Early in our lives here I made a debilitating mistake. Swaziland has a population of 1.2 million, 5% being white. Over 800 Americans alone live here, running NGOs, facilitating missions, and working at the embassy. South African families of European descent have also moved into Swaziland, enticed by her peaceful nature and cheap labor, so a minority population of white folks live here. Early on, I decided to be different than the other expatriates, missionaries, and “white” folks around me. I worked tirelessly to make sure I was kinder than them, didn’t hire a gardener to do the gardening for me, and even proved my difference by advancing in siSwati. In short, I feared being too much like the culture I came from. I feared drawing too deeply from my twisted roots of ethnocentricity, materialism, and superiority. I didn’t want to be the NGO that came into a community, installed a community garden, and walked away before anyone could tell us, “We don’t have water for these crops.” Yet, in my attempts to be “less than” the Swazis I met, I sought to be “better than” the expat community. My twisted attempt at humility and listening and learning puffed up my own pride. My head swelled, and my heart shrunk.

This tension tore me between being friends with a South African couple and their maids. I would visit my Swazi friend, Ncamsile, at her homestead, which looked much like where I lived. We’d chat, have tea, and look at her field of maize. The next day I’d visit my friend Jean’s house, which looks much like the middle-class home I grew up in. At Jean’s house, Ncamsile sheepishly greeted me in siSwati, hanging her head low as she washed dishes in the sink, then brought a tray of tea to her boss and me on the porch. And the lovely boss lady and I would have a wonderful chat, gazing out over her flower garden, discussing life. But the tension between these two worlds threatened to tear me apart.

Immaturely, wrongly, I degraded my Expat friends to my Swazi friends. My twisted thoughts told me, “By belittling the one, I will esteem the other.” Such action only reflect badly on the belittler—me.

In short, I kept my physical and emotional distance in friendships with these affluent folks. The questions I asked prevented me from ever drawing near to these neighbors.

How could I be friends with anyone who lives in this golf estate? Clearly, we have nothing in common. They have running water; I have a tank outside. They have four bedrooms; I have a one-room rondavel. Their budget is ten times mine. They report to work at an eight-to-four job at an orphanage; I create my own work, gardening, doula-ing, and showing up at church events. This chasm grew between me and the people who spoke my language fluently, knew where my hometown was, and who sought relationship with me. By pushing away from this growing expat community, I shoved myself into isolation, where loneliness crept in.

I was a person on the edge, living in a space between two worlds, and I threw myself off the fence. Instead of embracing my unique position of friendships with people from two worlds that often misunderstood each other, I rejected it. Instead of inviting such friends together to share a meal, I segregated my life. White friends and Swazi friends. There were two boxes. Two labels. And I aimed to keep them separate because I felt guilt.

There’s still quite a tension. Push it too far, and I’ll be using the gospel to advance my pocketbook, pride, and capitalism. Don’t push it enough, and I’ll start thinking I’m better because I live in a one-room house. It is only through Christ’s illuminating presence in my life that the delicate balance can be struck. There’s an edge to live on. I can live at the space between two worlds. I can take bucket baths in my house, Swazi-style, or steal hot showers from the clubhouse . I can speak siSwati, tell jokes, and laugh with an old gogo grandma. I can speak my mother tongue, ask how someone’s doing, and be a listening friend. It is in this kind of living that I begin to see more of Christ. I am a creator of love, goodness, light, joy, and peace amongst my human neighbors. Whether we are rich or poor, we all need gentle correction when we’ve done wrong. We need challenges to grow from. We need people to live on the edge with. We all need acceptance from the people around us, and invitation to live more deeply, more fully as echoes of Christ’s third way. We need reminders that there is an edge, a place teeming with life, full of love and friendships.

And I’m stirring the pot with my very presence. I am asking people to re-examine these walls erected between “us” and “them.” By standing at the fence, talking to everyone—Swazis, whites—my presence values the marginal.

Use Small, Slow [Creative] Solutions

“Small and slow solutions are easier to maintain than big ones, making better use of local resources and produce more sustainable outcomes.”

Conventional farming tells us to feed our crops using chemical fertilizer. Even for a quarter-acre homestead garden, I could drive to the supply store, purchase several pounds of fertilizer, don a HAZMAT suit and spray my crops. My crops would grow with the chemical “nutrients” I had sprayed on them. It’s a quick, more costly, instant-gratification response to a need.

Permaculture farming tells us the answer is much slower, much smaller. In order to feed our crops, we must first feed our soil. Months before we plant, we compost. We create soil out of manure, grass cuttings, and kitchen scraps. We employ worms to “farm” compost for us. And 18 days after I’ve turned my hot compost 5 times and watered it bi-weekly, it’s finally ready to feed my plants. This solution takes about 30 times the input of time, yet almost none of the cost. Additionally, it’s a lasting solution, unlike conventional farming’s chemical answer. Sure, I’ll keep adding compost to my soil, mending it, reconciling the microbial life; however, at some point, the soil will reach its potential as a self-regenerative system.

This specific permaculture principle is: “Use small, slow solutions.” However, I would expand it to, “Use small, slow, creative responses to everything.”

Jesus incarnated as a small, slow, creative response to man’s sinful bent. He could have come as a King, decreeing we love one another, demanding we turn the other cheek and journey two miles when asked forced to accompany a Roman soldier for one. He was not a God-man of projects and big programs, but one of spending time and being with people. Not only he did stand to teach the thousands, but the Gospels show he poured more time and energy into healing people—one broken, lonely, misshapen person at a time. In a crowd, he focused on one. His very essence and manner was of humble, small actions.

Sean and I could get pulled in a lot of directions. Put the word out that you work for free and might know something about moving water without electricity, and people will think of work for you to do.

“Move here. Start a farm to give our community jobs.”

“Let’s start an agricultural training school. You can facilitate and teach hundreds of people a year about farming your way.”

While these requests floored us, we only desired to work intimately with less than 5 families in our community. Yes, the lure of transforming a whole nation of 1.2 million appeals. Yes, having a large orphanage or farm or school or project attracts donors who pour in their “‘atta girls” and piles of cash. Such “big” projects are easy to hang our hats on, or point to and say, “Look what we’ve done.” Yet, Sean and I cannot sustain the large and complicated. (Who can?!) We see a God who moves differently, smaller even. He moves through relationship and being with people, just as much at teaching and healing people. Instead of “getting bigger”, Sean and I move out from ourselves, first getting our garden to actually grow a healthy crop. Then we may have a teeny bit of advice to offer when someone wonders why his or her hectare of sugar beans didn’t germinate. We commit ourselves to staying small, so that we might move slow, and be creative advocates for the growth of our home turf.

In addition to staying grounded and centralized in our location and work, we seek creative responses to everything. In Swaziland, being white tells people we probably have disposable income, so we get a lot of requests for financial help. In our response, we aim to creatively exchange resources with people. Often we circumnavigate the exchange of the emalangeni (Swaziland’s currency), instead choosing to trade man-hours, edible resources, or services when it is applicable.

Outside the closest grocery store, a mother and her two daughters sell fruits. The mother travels 30 minutes to town on a public bus, to purchase apples, bananas, and oranges imported from South Africa. She loads her boxes of fruit back onto a bus and then sets up her “shop” on the curb of the grocery store’s parking lot.

Over a year ago, when we moved into the neighborhood, I met these three. The ten-year-old schoolgirl, the pregnant teenager, and their siSwati-speaking mother. Over my initial purchases of fruit, I managed to fumble through, “Please speak slowly, I’m learning siSwati.”

The daughters’ eyes lit up. “Oh, you’re learning siSwati,” they said in English.

I laughed and said, “Well I’m trying. But only if you speak it with me, please.” And so began the delight of a friendship where they sell fruit and I buy it. A relationship where they teach me, and I learn.

It didn’t come for more than a year. Or maybe my siSwati wasn’t good enough to hear it for a year. But then it came last month. A request. A plea. An asking. Annunciating slowly for me, the Fruit-Selling-Mama said, “Your friend [the youngest daughter has been referred to as “my friend” since I met her], needs a uniform for school. Can you please help me buy a uniform?”

My heart sunk. Crap! Panic set in. Now what do I say? We’re not in the business of giving anything out for free, but school’s important. This is delicate, and I must respect her in my reply. Research DOES show that a young girl is more likely to complete school if she just has a uniform and a few pencils. And I don’t want her to drop out like her older sister because she got pregnant. Frozen to the concrete, stunned, I wished Sean were there to help me. I stuttered a feeble reply that I would think about it and speak to my husband, which I did.

Sean hatched a plan I liked. I scribbled down what I wanted to say to this mom. Then Nomduduso, our tutor, helped me translate it. Ten whole days later, I headed to the grocery store, armed with my grocery list, resolve, and my translated response to Fruit-Selling-Mama.

I approached with a full page of siSwati phrases. After greeting her, I launched into my reply. We walked through how much profit she gets from a given box of fruits. We talked about how I don’t like to give anything to anyone because it makes me feel like a bank (she laughed), and it complicates our relationship. Instead, I prefer supporting people in the work they are already doing, “like buying fruit from you instead of in the store.”

I told her, “I’m wanting to make jam or apple sauce, so I’m hoping you can help me with my problem. Could you get me one or two boxes of peaches or apples?”

At first she just peered at me from under her hat’s brim. What? Her eyes asked. Her question rested between those squinting eyes, the scrunched eyebrows. How does this connect to the uniform problem?

I continued, “And I was thinking, maybe with the extra profit you’re going to get, you can buy a uniform.” And she exploded. Into clapping hands, laughing smile, dancing feet, and swelling pride. Yes, yes. This was a good idea. She could do it. She would be happy to earn the money for the uniform.

And so I got some apples, which I turned into scrumptious applesauce. And Mama got a paycheck, then a uniform. And we both kept our dignity and took one small step toward more relationship. A step toward a solution we can all live with. It’s a solution we can sustain because I eat a lot of applesauce.

Our lives in Swaziland are like our budding garden. For months we hacked down weeds, mended the fence, composted grass, hauled manure, babied seedlings, and mulched beds. For handfuls of months we’ve listened, studied language, wrestled with life on the edge, failed at life lived among the marginal, and sought creative, small responses to both our needs and those of our community members. As I sit here, amongst the garden on a coveted plastic chair, the yellow finches tweet along the fence line, swooping into our chicken coop to scoop some seed. The chickens cluck quietly, fluffing and dusting their feathers in the improving soil. A towering oxheart tomato shades my skirted legs. Our landlord passes wearing his wife’s wide-brimmed, pink hat that shades his eyes. A voice from underneath the brim shouts,“I can see the lemon grass is growing. Soon you will make tea.” I nod and smile, bobbing the wide-brimmed straw hat that rests on my own head. “Yebo.” “Yes, I hope so. And then we will drink some together.”

A fancy silver car dashes up the road, passes our drive, backs up quickly, then blasts down the driveway. Our Afrikaner friends come to pick up their puppy that we dog-sat for the long weekend. After packing up the dog bed and food, they give me a big “Thank you so much.”

And I respond, “As the Swazis say, ‘Wemukelikile.’ You are welcome here anytime.”

Nicole’s first endeavors into cross-cultural living started with inner city Newark, New Jersey, where she taught high school students English. Since 2012, Nicole has lived in Swaziland with her husband Sean and their faithful Jack Russell, Thor. Their blog exposes more of their journey at

1 The principles quoted in this article are from Permaculture South Africa, “Permaculture Design Course Handbook” (handbook created by course instructors),

2 Bill McKibben, “The Moral Math of Climate Change,” On Being with Krita Tippett, podcast audio, August 5, 2010,

3 Scripture quotations are from the New Living Translation.

4 McKibben.

5 McKibben.

6 Richard Rohr, Everything Belongs: The Gift of Contemplative Prayer, rev. ed. (New York: Crossroad Publishing Company, 2003), 33.

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The Instructions of Jesus Regarding Missionary Lifestyle

Missionary lifestyle has long been subject to vigorous discussion. What do the Scriptures say regarding the topic? Do the words of Jesus when sending His disciples apply today? Do the epistles add any clarity to the question? Do the instructions of Christ apply to missionaries only or equally to all of his followers? The Scriptures are consistent when they are allowed to speak for themselves.

What is the appropriate lifestyle for a missionary? If given a choice, most missionaries might opt for a mansion instead of a mud hut. Should they? Lifestyle decisions are very personal (or so the Western world assumes). Do missionaries have the right to decide how they should live? Those preparing for missionary service are encouraged to follow the instructions of Christ. Missionary trainers often say the pursuit of personal rights culminates in the acceptance of Jesus as Lord. Once that right has been exercised, only responsibilities remain. Is this a proper reading of Scripture? Must we abandon our right to lifestyle choices as a messenger of the cross?

Exhortations of Scripture

When one studies the requirements for discipleship, it is quickly observed that two areas of concern are mentioned: people and possessions.

1. People. Jesus asked his followers to put him first—above other people, especially family members (Luke 14:26). In point of fact, his first followers left parents and fellow workers (Mark 1:20)—though they were promised a new and larger circle of relatives (Mark 10:29–30).

2. Possessions. Distrust of wealth was a central teaching of Jesus (Mark 4:19), for the wealthy will find it difficult to enter the kingdom of God (Mark 10:23). Hence, the Master encouraged renouncing all possessions, selling them, and giving the proceeds to the poor (Luke 12:33–34). When called into discipleship, the followers of Jesus left their jobs (Mark 1:16–20). When sent into the mission field, the disciples were instructed to leave behind their possessions (Mark 6:8–9). The recipients of their message would provide their needs (Matt. 10:10). Those who left their possessions were promised an abundant reward (Mark 10:29).

Analysis of Commitment

What did Jesus mean? Do his exhortations apply today? For whom did he intend these extraordinary demands? The texts under consideration were addressed to the “disciples.” The term disciple referred narrowly to “the twelve” (John 2:2) and broadly to “those who believe” (Matt 10:42). In this section of the article, comments will be restricted to the narrower sense—those Jesus sent out as missionaries.

1. Specific demands. When the Lord called the disciples to become “fishers of men,” they left both employment and family (Luke 5:11). It was a practical consequence of changing vocations. Those who answer the call to mission should, out of the necessity of the assignment, sever their ties with employment and relatives in order to go overseas.

2. General requirements. While the specific demands mention the disciples by name, the general requirements refer to unknown persons. Three requirements are stated. First, whoever plans to follow Jesus should weigh the cost of insecurity, which likely grew out of the specific demands above (Matt 8:18–20). Second, whoever follows Jesus should put his mission above all other human plans (Luke 9:59–60). And, third, whoever wants to follow Jesus must make an absolute commitment without regrets or afterthoughts (Luke 9:61–62). These general requirements have a single purpose: In order to be with Jesus, to be his missionary, one must be ready for everything and prefer him over all things. These requirements do not ask for concrete renunciation but refer to an unconditional commitment to the Lord—a commitment that takes priority over all other values.

Preparations for Mission

The preparation of the twelve and the sending of the seventy-two are concerned with the opposition that the messengers would encounter: hate, persecution, and death (Matt 10:17–24). Thus, the Lord issues special instructions to his missionaries.

1. Strategic arrangements. Christ sends his messengers in pairs (Mark 6:7; Luke 10:1). They are to greet no one along the road (Luke 10:4). They are forbidden to move from house to house (Luke 10:7). These missionaries are also given particularly strict instructions concerning what they could take on their journey (though the stipulations varied).

Provisions for Mission Matt
Bread No
Bag No No No
Money No No
Staff No Yes
Extra tunic No No
Sandals No Yes No

The Gospel of Mark began the list of instructions with the words, “take nothing for the journey” (Mark 6:8) but allows a staff and sandals (Mark 6:8–9), both of which are prohibited by Matthew. What does all of this mean? It seems that the intent is not ascetic poverty (or scorn of wealth) but functional poverty (or necessity of the task). In others words, mission requires haste. Therefore, missionaries are to travel light, to be unencumbered. God (and the good will of the hearers) would provide (Matt 10:10; Luke 10:7; 22:35). It is apparent, however, once the conditions change—namely, when they encountered hostile situations—Jesus recommends different behavior (Luke 22:36).

2. Spiritual preparations. Though Jesus sent out the disciples as peaceful envoys, they would eventually confront opposition (Mark 13:9, 12). Initially, the religious leaders would attack the missionaries (Luke 21:12). Later, the messengers of the Lord would be “hated by all” (Mark 13:13), which included their very own families (Matt 10:21; Luke 21:16). These hate and persecution sayings are placed in the context of sending out the twelve as well as the suffering at the end of the age. Matthew places them in both contexts (Matt. 10:17–18; 24:9), while Mark and Luke restrict them to the eschatological discourse alone (Mark 13:9-13; Luke 21:12–17). Opposition was obviously a common experience for the first missionaries. It is, likewise, a similar experience for their contemporary counterparts (Matt 10:25).

All of the passages that address missionary preparation revolve around the idea of being “with Jesus” (Mark 3:14; 5:18). Since he was central, all other realities (family, occupation, security, and self-affirmation) were thrust to the periphery. The missionary texts concentrate on the decision (rather than the behavior) of commitment. “Denial of oneself” is the bedrock of missionary service (Matt 16:24–28). Such submission requires “forsaking all.” The urgency of mission demands “taking nothing for the journey.” Nevertheless, behind all of these stipulations is the example of the Lord, the model of self-renunciation (2 Cor 8:9).

Characteristics of Ministry

The history of the early church echoes the requirements which were clearly articulated during the ministry of the Lord. How did the early church respond to his demands? Did they alter any of them and, if so, in what way?

1. Acts. Because Acts was authored by Luke, we are afforded an opportunity to see how he views the extraordinary demands of Jesus operational in the life and growth of the young community of faith. First, the attitude of the early church toward money is quite clear. The Lord insists on his followers divesting themselves of their possessions in order to share with others, especially with the poor (Luke 12:33; 14:33). Describing the life of the first community of believers in Jerusalem, Luke shows in a concrete way how such sharing is done. Those who have possessions sell them and place the proceeds at the apostles’ feet to be shared or distributed according to the needs of each one (Acts 2:43–45; 4:32–45; 5:2). In the Gospel of Luke, the sharing is with the poor in general, while in Acts the sharing is with believers in particular. Divestiture does not lead to poverty but community. The same theme plays out in other texts (Acts 11:29; 20:33-35). Though Luke makes no allusion to the sayings of Jesus in Acts, it is clear that the renunciation was not asceticism—a repudiation of wealth—but the creation of a community of believers through the sharing of wealth.

Second, the attitude of the early church toward suffering is also clear. For example, Stephen prays for those who are in the process of stoning him to death (Acts 7:60). So, too, Paul endures hardship for Jesus’ sake (Acts 9:16; 20:23). Paul and Barnabas put their lives on the line for the Lord (Acts 15:26). They attach no value to their existence (Acts 20:24); therefore, they are ready to die for Christ (Acts 21:13). They are glad to suffer humiliation for “the sake of the name” (Acts 5:40, 41). Such was and is the calling of a missionary.

2. Epistles. The letters describe the messianic significance of Jesus and his effect on the behavior of the first century saints. It is no surprise, then, that the historical elements of his life and ministry are almost totally absent in the epistles. Still, the letters announce several radical demands which closely resemble the requirements of discipleship enunciated by Jesus. The following are pertinent. First, Christians need an enduring faith. The early church suffered various trials: hunger, thirst, abuse, insult, imprisonment, beatings, and poverty (1 Cor 4:11; 2 Cor 6:4–5, 10). Such was the fate of every believer (2 Tim 3:11–12). Yet, those who suffered were abundantly blessed (2 Thess 1:5; 1 Pet 2:19–20; 4:13–14). The epistles obviously reflect Jesus’ emphasis.

Second, a community of possessions is necessary. Paul insists on churches helping poor saints (Rom. 15:26; Gal 2:10). Therefore, he organizes a collection for the believers in Jerusalem (1 Cor 16:1–4). He calls it a koinōnia, that is, a sharing (2 Cor 8:4). The sharing of material possessions is a proof of Christian-ness (1 John 3:17; 4:20), a demonstration of the correct understanding of a believer’s relationship to money (1 Tim 6:17-19; Heb 13:16). Quite clearly the disciple of Jesus must be free from dependency on material things (1 Cor 7:31; Phil 4:6). All of this echoes the sobering challenge of Jesus (Matt 6:25–34).

Third, discipleship demands a deep love. The compassion of believers is distinctive in a world of secular values. They are called upon to bless those who persecuted them Rom 12:14; 1 Cor 4:12), to return good to those who hurt them (Rom 12:20), to avoid anger (Col 3:8), and to show courtesy to everyone (Titus 3:2). If those are not outrageous enough, believers are also to refrain from revenge (Rom 12:17; 1 Thess 5:15; 1 Pet 3:8–9). Even though there was injustice, believers are not to demand their rights (from fellow saints) (1 Cor 6:7). Rather, the followers of the humble Galilean must bear with others (Col 3:13), carry their burdens, (Gal 6:2), and refrain from judging them (Rom 14:4, 10). If correction is needed, it must be carefully administered (2 Thess 3:15; Eph 4:32). All of this requires a new attitude (Col 3:12). The teachings of the post-resurrection epistles are strikingly similar to the pre-resurrection sayings of Jesus. Faith in Christ calls for a radical reorientation of a believer’s relationship with both God and man.

Significance for Today

What does all of this mean for us today? How should a missionary understand these radical sayings?

1. Particular instructions. All of the requirements for missionary service can be clustered around four instructions. In other words, Christ called for drastic actions that measured faithfulness.

First, the missionary must follow Jesus. In order to be his messenger, one must deny oneself, take up the cross, and follow him. This will lead to opposition, persecution, and even death. To walk with the Lord, one must put him ahead of family and possessions when they stand in the way of complete commitment. When sent into mission, the messenger relies on the grace of God (Acts 14:26).

Second, the missionary must love others. To love our fellow human beings, one must refrain from judging and condemning. The missionary is called to forgive, to reconcile, to avoid harsh words and bad feelings—to be compassionate as God is compassionate—toward both his fellow missionaries and the local people.

Third, the missionary must live a life of humility. The kingdom is given to those who hunger and thirst for it, who suffer till it comes, who are as defenseless and powerless as children. Though works of righteousness are required, no matter how much is done, the missionary will be an “unworthy servant.” For the Master will never be indebted to the slave.

And, finally, the missionary must share his possessions. Riches are a permanent danger, though poverty is never presented as a goal or asceticism a way of life. Missionaries are to be suspicious of money because it tempts them and those to whom it is given to place their trust in material possessions. The call to sell everything must be seen in the perspective of giving, distributing, and sharing with the saints in order to form community.

2. Appropriate interpretations. As radical demands, these unusual sayings often appear impossible. This may be due to Jesus’ use of paradoxical expressions in order to make striking, unforgettable images. It is useful to form a taxonomy of these statements. On one hand, some of the radical requirements cannot be taken literally: become a child, carry your cross, and give to everyone who asks. These statements are designed, as exaggerated expressions, to suggest that extreme (though not literal) action is necessary. On the other hand, many of these radical demands contain degrees of literalness, that is, they are literal “in some circumstances” over against “in all situations.” In some circumstances, such as going the second mile and letting everything possessed be taken away, the demands apply to events where a greater power inflicts abuse. In every situation, such as renouncing oneself and losing oneself, the demands are definitive orders to obey.

Relevance to Mission

How do these outrageous stipulations apply to contemporary missionaries? A cursory reading of the text reveals an unchanging core of requirements in the shockingly drastic suggestions of the concise and riveting message of Jesus. He leaves no wiggling room (except where the radical requirements cannot be taken literally). He allows no options. There is no debate. Christ must be put above everyone and everything else (Col 1:16-18). He must be obeyed (Luke 6:46).

1. Disturbing challenge. The Lord confronts self-confidence, overturns self-indulgence, and shatters self-sufficiency. Faced with these demands, the missionary feels powerless. And, even when the radical expressions are placed in their contexts, they are still disturbing. There is always the temptation to diminish their relevance, to decrease their importance. One can kill their intensity through endless exegesis. Or, as it has often happened, one can reduce their rigors by assigning them to certain groups, such as monastic orders, which relieves the masses of their responsibility. Though the interpretation of these extreme demands is not always literal, they cannot be set aside as simply pious daydreaming.

When the situation warrants it, missionaries must risk their lives. When circumstances require it, they must share their material possessions, must forgive their oppressors, and must walk humbly among the proud. Of course, the committed will constantly fail (though they must not declare the undertaking impossible nor assign the responsibility to someone else). Instead, missionaries will suffer the tension and reproach associated with the challenge of their calling. Rather than alleviate the pain through clever interpretation, rather than relegate the task to others, ambassadors of the gospel will take seriously the radical demands of their Lord (in spite of the disturbance these requirements bring). Missionaries accept being challenged beyond their capability, troubled by their failures in trying to do the difficult, but they are happy that it ignites their faith to anticipate the fullness of the kingdom, to dream of heaven where these extreme commitments will be a way of life.

2. Deliberate acceptance. The motive for accepting the extravagant demands of Jesus revolves around the coming of the kingdom. The sovereignty of God calls for radical change—conversion (Mark 1:14–15). The reign of God overturns established norms, traditional structures, and past behavior. A new lifestyle, a comprehensive reorientation of values, is required. When these demands are detached from the kingdom, they slide into rigid legalism. When stripped of the kingdom connection, they become misguided humility that has no place in missionary service (Col. 2:20–23).

The motive for living these radical requirements is threefold. First, they are a stepping stone to being with him (Mark 3:14; 5:18). To walk with him, to be his disciple, means sharing his mission, accepting his fate. Thus, we leave family and face opposition to be “worthy” of him (Matt 10:37–38), to be his disciple (Luke 14:26–27; 33). Second, these extravagant demands are the way of being godly. In other words, the reason to love others, especially those who do not love us, is to become like God (Matt 5:45). We are called to “be perfect as our heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt 5:48). This “perfection” or maturity is unconditional love, namely, sacrificing oneself for the good of others. By behaving in this way, the follower of Christ “lives in God and God [lives] in him” (1 John 4:7–11, 16b).

Third, these outrageous requirements are an avenue of blessing. The missionary accepts the difficult conduct required by Jesus with good reason. In announcing the extraordinary demands, the Lord mentioned what—at first glance—might appear to be a self-seeking motive. Such attitudes and behaviors are the conditions for having treasures in heaven (Matt 19:21), obtaining life (Mark 9:43), or entering the kingdom (Mark 9:47). Everything surrendered for Jesus’ sake will be restored a hundred times over (Mark 10:30). Deeds done in secret will be rewarded openly (Matt 6:6). Therefore, the messenger of God becomes a servant, shares with the poor, avoids anger, does not judge (or condemn), endures violence, and loves his enemies because rewards accompany such conduct. In other words, silhouetted behind these challenging demands is the golden rule: “do unto others what you would have others do unto you” (Matt 7:12). Clearly, such attitudes and behaviors have their compensation (Luke 6:38).

Radical living is not the commitment of a select few, elite saints huddled in a secluded community off the beaten path. The extraordinary demands of Jesus are addressed to all who believe. Taken as a whole, situated in their proper context, and correctly understood, these outrageous requirements are not—in the first century or in the twenty-first century—the responsibility of any particular group. They involve all who claim Jesus as their Lord. If missionaries had been more attentive to this fact in the past, if they were more attentive to it today, the aroma of Christianity would be compelling and the mission of God would be nearer to what he wanted it to be.

After attending Abilene Christian University and Fuller Theological Seminary, Ed Mathews received his Doctor of Missiology in 1980. He taught missions for thirty-eight years at Abilene Christian University. He was chairman of the Department of Missions for twelve of those years. During his tenure, he taught various missions courses: Theology of Mission, World Religions, Ethnotheology, History of Missions, Missionary Research, and Leadership Training by Extension. He retired in 2008. Ed continues to live in Abilene, Texas. He uses his time to write on missions, teach a Bible class on Sunday morning, and chair the mission committee at a local congregation.

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Review of Gary A. Haugen, The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence

Gary A. Haugen and Victor Boutros. The Locust Effect: Why the End of Poverty Requires the End of Violence. Kindle ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014. 385 pp. $9.99.

This book made me extremely angry. I seethed with righteous indignation for the entire first half of the volume. Gary Haugen is the founder of International Justice Mission, an international human rights agency that provides service to “impoverished victims of violent abuse and oppression in the developing world” (Kindle locs. 149–51). His book begins with several gut-wrenching illustrations of injustice in the majority world. From Yuri, the small Peruvian child who was raped and left bloodied in the street while her assailants paid off the court and went scot-free, to the Indian family enslaved by a small debt who, children and all, break up large rocks into gravel while their debt gets larger year after year and who are beaten near to death by the police if they try to escape.

With emphasis given to sex trafficking, enslavement, the poor being forced off their land, the prevalence of violence, human rights, and the incompetency of the police and the courts, the central thesis of this book is that unless we intentionally focus on criminal injustice, our efforts to ease or eradicate poverty will be unsuccessful—“endemic to being poor is a vulnerability to violence, or the way violence is right now, catastrophically crushing the global poor” (Kindle locs. 138–39).

I will admit that though I have spent many years of my life living in the majority world, and an equal number of years directing holistic ministry efforts among the world’s poor, I had not made the link between ongoing crushing poverty and criminal injustice. The agency with which I work has successful ministries in digging wells and providing clean water, preventative medicine, health clinics, child sponsorship, microfinance, church planting, ministerial training—the sorts of things many are involved with. But we have never had ministries to better equip or train the police, to provide scholarships or books to lawyers and judges, or to publicly confront the structural sins of the justice systems where we work. Without changing the criminal justice system, all of our well-intentioned efforts can be completely wiped out, like when a plague of locusts sweeps through. The buzzwords—development, empowerment, sustainability—mean little if there is not an underlying foundation of justice.

It is only in the second half of the book, when Haugen and Boutros begin to share some actual case studies of efforts to address injustice, that I began to see the faintest glimmer of hope. With a grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, sex trafficking was greatly reduced in Cebu City, Philippines. “But,” as the authors state, “there is no silver bullet.” An old Indian man who had devoted his life to studying the law, when asked why the police and the court systems don’t provide justice for the common person, said they were not designed for that. They were established during colonial times and were designed to protect the wealthy and the country’s resources for the elite, not to provide justice for the poor. Indeed, affecting change will be like emptying an Olympic-sized swimming pool one cup at a time.

Over a century ago the police forces in cities like New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and Tokyo were completely corrupt. Today they are not. The value of The Locust Effect is highlighting an issue and raising consciousness. Do not neglect this book. The more who are aware, the more will be called to do something.

Doug Priest

Executive Director

CMF International

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Review of Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, with Anthony Parker, 2nd ed.

Gailyn Van Rheenen. Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies. With Anthony Parker. 2nd ed. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014. 512 pp. Hardcover. $26.47.

In the new edition of Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, Gailyn Van Rheenen, with Anthony Parker, significantly broadens Van Rheenen’s first edition. By examining the expansive theological underpinnings of missio Dei, as well as current strategic missionary methods, Van Rheenen allows the practice of mission to grow out of God’s call to missions, into a transformational knowledge of practical ministry.

The book is divided into nineteen chapters, beginning with the overarching metanarrative of missio Dei in the Bible. Since this is a massive undertaking, I expected only a cursory nod to the biblical perspective on missions. However, the writers do an excellent job of bringing the central theme of the missionary story of God into focus in the first few chapters. Van Rheenen and Parker have drawn upon their numerous years of both academic and field experience to present the biblical foundations of mission.

Following the historical section are three chapters that stress the motive or “heart allegiance” for being a missionary and various types of missionaries, followed by the cycle of being a missionary. These chapters’ practical nature makes them valuable to the reader interested in becoming a missionary. Pre-departure through reentry time periods are surveyed. Because preparation and in-depth training is so vital to the success of long-term service, even prefield educational classes are suggested.

Readers should appreciate Van Rheenen’s efforts to communicate the nature of mission in the history of the church. The God who made covenant with the people of Israel, making them a light to the nations, is the same God who inspires missionaries today to stand up to injustice and spread the faith around the globe. Human history—and mission history—is a story of “people in relationship to God.”

It’s all about relationships! Another theme of the book is the need for culturally sensitive eyes as we approach cross-cultural missions. Foci on cultural awareness, living incarnationally, entering a new culture, learning from those around you, and becoming multicultural place the emphasis right where it needs to be—on the cross-cultural missionary. Although Van Rheenen does not give the missionary recruit all the tools needed to be successful, he does provide tools to begin to work out how to cross cultural boundaries successfully.

Much has been written about strategies for missions. This book arguably boils strategy down to the essentials and gives models and examples for planting and nurturing churches. The question, “What do I do about the money?” is addressed in a chapter on using money in missions and just may eliminate some of the serious dilemmas that historically have resulted in “division, jealousy, and trauma” on the field. New missionaries, and some old ones too, have a tendency to be naïve about money in initial stages of ministry. This chapter is a great place to start the discussion for making plans prior to reaching the field.

Van Rheenen does not shy away from the controversy associated with short-term missions but instead embraces the debate in chapter eighteen, “The Benefits and Challenges of Short-Term Missions.” He states, “North Americans who minister in a Third World culture are spiritually touched and transformed and begin to see the world with new eyes. The recipients of the missions, however, are frequently impacted in negative, though unintentional, ways” (431). Van Rheenen acknowledges the challenges of short-term missions and encourages people facilitating missions in modern churches to see both short-term and long-term efforts as vital to reaching the whole world.

The book accomplishes its task by including case studies and examples from current scenarios around the world, taking the reader on a journey of discovery in the world of missions. “Jim and Julie” (fictive prospective missionaries) are used to engage the reader and better assist in seeing ourselves in the role of missionary. Each chapter concludes with a “Reflection and Application” section that asks questions related to the chapter’s material, allowing the reader to apply the newly gathered information to her own life and ministry. “The Personal Inventory” portion of this section requires the student to reflect personally on what God is calling her to do with the newly gleaned material.

Van Rheenen’s highly revised book makes a fresh contribution to the education and preparation of prospective missionaries and new believers alike. This book could easily serve as an excellent resource or textbook for an introductory college course on missions, or for a congregation considering mission and cross-cultural engagements. By forming the conceptual framework for missions in theology and practice, this book helps the reader see herself in God’s call.

Linda Whitmer

Dean of the School of Intercultural Studies

Johnson University

Knoxville, Tennessee

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Review of Scott W. Sunquist, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory

Scott W. Sunquist. Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013. 448 pp. Hardcover. $21.48.

Fuller Theological Seminary has a long history of leadership in the global mission movement, and the recent contribution of the dean of the School of Intercultural Studies furthers that reputation. Scott Sunquist, dean since 2012, provides a comprehensive, balanced, and fresh introduction to world missions with his recently published book, Understanding Christian Mission: Participation in Suffering and Glory. The weighty (448 page) volume is intended to serve as an introductory textbook, and would be most suitable for upper-level undergraduate or introductory graduate-level studies. It has been particularly well received in the missiological discipline.1

Several aspects of Sunquist’s personal background find expression in his writing. First, he is an academically accomplished historian, with earned degrees from Gordon-Conwell (MDiv) and Princeton (PhD) and a combined total of 27 years as professor of church and missions history at Trinity Theological College (Singapore), Pittsburgh Theological Seminary, and now Fuller. He is author of several books, most notably the (to date) two-volume History of the World Christian Movement, coauthored with Dale Irvin.2 As a result, Understanding Christian Mission is replete with historical perspective and a wealth of footnotes that reveal a familiarity with primary sources and wide exposure to current literature, both academic and popular. Second, Sunquist is an ordained pastor of the Presbyterian Church (USA) whose personal theological leanings are also shaped significantly by Pentecostal pneumatology and Eastern Orthodox spirituality.3 The volume is richly theological throughout, bringing Orthodox and “Spiritual” (to use Sunquist’s term) correctives to an ecumenical Protestant perspective. Within that mix, he also values the contributions of Roman Catholicism and Evangelicalism, so that the volume at times feels like a round-table conversation. Third, Sunquist is a missionary and evangelist at heart, having served in Singapore for eight years and with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship for six years. Thus, while the pragmatic contributions of his book take a tertiary position behind history and theology, he still writes with the added flair of first-hand experience and with conviction of the essentiality of active evangelism.

Understanding Christian Mission is organized into three parts: History, Theology, and Practical Issues. Thus he follows the tripartite structure that has become standard in missiological introductions of recent years4 but alters the standard order, giving history the primary place before theology. This is not a denigration of theology but rather an admission that constructive theology relies upon a clear perception of our current historical situation. The entire volume—all three sections—ends up being quite pointedly theological, as the book’s thesis demonstrates: “Mission is from the heart of God, to each context, and it is carried out in suffering in this world for God’s eternal glory” (xii). The Preface expands on this thesis, illuminating the all-important interplay of suffering and glory that Sunquist traces throughout the volume. The Introduction is substantive (21 pages) and helpful but somewhat disjointed, covering the history of the discipline of missiology, the varied definitions of mission, and nine “contextual concerns” that shape the current missiological discussion.

Part 1 covers mission history in five chapters. Ancient and Medieval Mission surprisingly skips over the New Testament era to focus on the monastic movements of the fourth through fifteenth centuries. Colonial Missions, Part 1, covers the global expansion of Roman Catholicism. Colonial Missions, Part 2, fills a common lacuna with its presentation of early Catholic and Protestant missions to the ancient Christian peoples of the Near East, then presents an overview of missions to the First Nations of North America. Chapters 4 and 5 are an overview of Western Missions (1842–1948) and Postcolonial Missiologies (1948 to present), with significant emphasis on the changing missional thrust of the conciliar movements (Edinburgh, IMC, WCC, Lausanne, etc.). In each phase of history, Sunquist focuses on the “issues” that shaped missiological thought and practice: slavery, colonialism, confrontation with other religions, the role of women, unity in mission, secular theologies, and the rise of Pentecostalism, just to name a few. These “issue” discussions are elucidating and well chosen, but due to the breadth of coverage the factual historical overview is at times quite brief. The historically minded missions professor will want to provide supplemental material for his or her students.

Part 2 is the theological heart of the volume, presenting mission as flowing from the Triune God. Chapter 6, “Creator God as the Sending Father,” may be described as a well-worded restatement of storied theology in a missional hermeneutic, such as has become common fare in the vein of Chris Wright’s landmark work.5 Chapter 7, “Jesus, Sent as the Suffering and Sacrificing Son,” is a particularly well-rounded presentation of the centrality of Christ in Old Testament expectations, Gospel stories, early church experience, and eschatological fulfillment, with clear extrapolations for missions (most notably the nature of the gospel and the crucial role of suffering). In light of the faith malaise that confronts today’s university and seminary students, this chapter is especially appreciated. Chapter 8, “Holy Spirit in Mission,” is less impressive. The discussion of the Holy Spirit is generally helpful, but only occupies 13 pages before the attention turns completely to the missiological concepts of culture and contextualization for 26 pages. The rather tenuous connection is that the Holy Spirit works in all cultures. In the end, neither pneumatology nor culture theory is presented with the richness it deserves.

Sunquist describes Part 3 alternatively as an ecclesiology and as pragmatic issues facing mission today. It is some of each. Chapter 9 is indeed a very good ecclesiology, centering the church’s dual raison d’être in worship and witness. Chapter 10 then zooms in on witness, defining the church’s evangelistic role in a way that is biblically broad, evangelically sound, and full of conviction. Sunquist remarks, “There is something to offend pretty much everyone in this chapter” (315); I, for one, thought it right on target. Chapter 11 is less provocative—a basic introduction to the urban challenge such as one might get if Conn and Ortiz’s tome were boiled down to a concentrate.6 Chapter 12, on partnership, is particularly disappointing. Sunquist seems hardly to be aware of the significant dependency issues that are still propagated in the name of partnership, or at least does nothing to help students of mission become aware of them.7 The final chapter, on spirituality, is a superbly fitting conclusion, tying history, theology, and ecclesiology into one personally motivating package, taking a page from Bosch’s Spirituality of the Road.8

Helps at the end of the book include an appendix chart of twentieth-century ecumenical councils, an extensive bibliography organized topically, and scriptural and topical indexes.

The above summary highlights several of the strengths of the volume: a strongly theological approach, a thought-provoking historical analysis, and bold and faithful chapters on Christology, ecclesiology, evangelism, and spirituality. Another laudable characteristic of Sunquist’s writing is his ability to introduce major movements of Christianity in terms apprehensible to students. For example, his brief but well-placed introductions to the dispensationalism of J. N. Darby (110–11), Pentecostalism and A. B. Simpson (128), Hoekendijk and the Social Gospel (140–42), and the emergence of evangelicalism (159–61) help bring students up to speed without veering off topic. In general, Sunquist is to be commended for staying focused on mission thought while drawing perspective from a wide swath of religious and secular history.

Teachers of mission face a choice of approaches for an introductory missions course. Sunquist’s strengths and weaknesses can best be seen in comparison with other text options.9 One widely used text is Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions.10 While Sunquist offers a much broader introduction to mission than Tucker, the motivational and personal element that comes from reading stories of missionaries past is one of the most significant holes in Sunquist’s history.11 Consequently, a pairing of Sunquist and Tucker would be most welcome for students. Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, offers a much more strategic, how-to approach;12 Sunquist does not touch such practical aspects as worldview, culture shock, sustainability, church planting strategies, or reentry. Anthropology, long a staple component of missiology, gets barely a second glance. Students preparing for a missionary career would do well to start with Sunquist as a foundation for strategic training in the vein of Van Rheenen. And then there’s Bosch. While David Bosch’s Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission should not be classified as introductory-level, it shares much in common with Sunquist: historical-theological study of mission, trinitarian rooting of the missio Dei, and concern for evangelical ecumenism. Each of Bosch’s twelve “Elements of an Emerging Ecumenical Missionary Paradigm” finds clear expression in Sunquist (though without Bosch’s clarity of organization). However, a comparison with Part 1 of Bosch—164 pages of biblical exegesis—reveals Sunquist’s final major weakness. The bulk of Sunquist’s theology is systematic rather than biblical.13 Sunquist’s approach avoids Bosch’s neglect of the Old Testament and the Holy Spirit but fails to offer students the richness of insight that comes through exegetical wrestling with the most primary of primary sources: the Holy Scriptures.14

Even with its shortcomings, Understanding Christian Mission stands as one of the most well-rounded introductions to Christian mission today. Teachers of mission would do well to consider it as a key textbook, especially if supplemented as noted above. Moreover, students of any discipline who want a one-volume entrance to the world of missiology will do well to start here. Sunquist is to be thanked for this key contribution; may many take up his call to participate in the suffering and glory of Christ!

Danny Reese


Huambo, Angola

1 Understanding Christian Mission is the recipient of the 2014 Christianity Today Book Award for “Best in Missions/Global Affairs” ( and is highlighted on the list of “Fifteen Outstanding Books of 2013 for Mission Studies,” International Bulletin for Missionary Research 38, no. 2 (April 2014): 101. More acclaim for the book, as well as five video clips of Sunquist’s own thoughts on the volume, can be found at

2 Dale T. Irvin and Scott Sunquist, History of the World Christian Movement, 2 vols. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2001–2012). Other publications of note are Scott Sunquist, ed., A Dictionary of Asian Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001) and Scott Sunquist and Caroline N. Becker, eds., A History of Presbyterian Missions, 1944–2007 (Louisville, KY: Geneva Press, 2008).

3 Sunquist’s interest in Syrian and other Eastern Orthodox perspectives finds expression in his preponderance of quotes from the Philokalia, one of his primary “conversation partners” (18). This perspective, somewhat lacking in most missiological literature, contributes to the freshness of Sunquist’s writing.

4 For example, A. Scott Moreau, Garry R. Corwin, and Gary B. McGee, Introducing World Missions: A Biblical, Historical, and Practical Survey, Encountering Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004); Craig Ott and Stephen Strauss with Timothy C. Tennent, Encountering Theology of Mission: Biblical Foundations, Historical Developments, and Contemporary Issues, Encountering Mission (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010); Zane G. Pratt, M. David Sills, and Jeffrey K. Walters, Introduction to Global Missions (Nashville: B&H Publishing, 2014).

5 Christopher J. H. Wright, The Mission of God: Unlocking the Bible’s Grand Narrative (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2006).

6 Harvie M. Conn and Manuel Ortiz, Urban Ministry: The Kingdom, the City, and the People of God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2001).

7 He rightly presents partnership as a great necessity of missions today, but only hints at the difficulties through his mention (390) of Jonathan Bonk’s Missions and Money: Affluence as a Western Missionary Problem, rev. ed (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2007). But Bonk deals exclusively with affluence as a personal relational issue for rich missionaries among poor societies; his book does not attempt to address systemic dependency of churches, theological education, short-term missions, etc. For a convincing critique of the failure of the partnership paradigm in light of these difficulties, see Robert Reese, Roots and Remedies of the Dependency Syndrome in World Missions (Pasadena, CA: William Carey Library, 2010), esp. 91–99.

8 David J. Bosch, A Spirituality of the Road, Missionary Studies 6 (Scottdale, PA: Herald Press, 1979).

9 Perhaps the most similar option to Sunquist is Timothy Tennent, Invitation to World Missions: A Trinitarian Missiology for the Twenty-First Century, Invitation to Theological Studies Series (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2010). Both adopt a trinitarian theological foundation, both are somewhat weak in strategic pragmatics, but Sunquist offers a depth of historical insight that surpasses Tennent.

10 Ruth A. Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya: A Biographical History of Christian Missions, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004).

11 William Carey receives a few sentences; David Brainerd gets twelve words; Robert Moffat, Mary Slessor, Brother Andrew, and Jim Elliot receive not even a mention.

12 Gailyn Van Rheenen, Missions: Biblical Foundations and Contemporary Strategies, with Anthony Parker, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2014).

13 The key exceptions are the four “windows” into Jesus’ mission, brief exegetical studies taken from the Gospels, Acts, and Revelation (221–25).

14 One danger of Sunquist’s style of systematic theology is the easy intermingling of Scripture with other sources. For example, in his 13-page exposition of the Holy Spirit’s role in mission, Sunquist quotes ancient and medieval theologians almost as often (9 times) as he quotes Scripture (11 times), effortlessly elevating their writings to similar authoritative heights—a subtle move that students may not be able to perceive or evaluate.

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Review of Zane Pratt, Jeff K. Walters, and M. David Sills, Introduction to Global Missions

ZANE PRATT, M. DAVID SILLS, AND JEFF K. WALTERS. Introduction to Global Missions. Nashville: B&H Academic, 2014. 280 pp. $34.99.

Zane Pratt, M. David Sills, and Jeff Walters offer a new introductory text for undergraduate and seminary students on the nature and challenges of global missions. Introduction to Global Missions contains minimal footnotes and concise definitions of important nomenclature as it builds a cumulative case for missions, especially to underserved and unreached people groups. Divided into four sections, the book explores biblical and theological foundations of missions, the history of global missions, reflections on culture and contextualization, and missions practices, particularly emphasizing church planting and discipleship.

The volume initially appears to be a welcome contribution for the conundrum of many introductory courses in missions: the choice between the standard, highly technical works (few of which garner even a mention in this book) or texts so basic, so introductory, that they serve students little, if at all. Written by three experienced practitioner-scholars with previously published material in the field, this volume looked to fill the gap in a meaningful way. Unfortunately, Introduction to Global Missions ultimately disappoints with its narrow theological vision, often dated and clunky syntax, and unnecessary caricatures of those outside the evangelical fold.

From the outset it is an echo chamber of mutual affirmation. The book is written by three men who currently or previously were colleagues at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, published by B&H Academic (an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention’s Lifeway Christian Resources), and endorsed almost exclusively by Southern Baptists. A more forthcoming title would have been Introduction to Southern Baptist Global Missions. The text becomes increasingly narrow in its perspective and application as it progresses. It is not only lacking in the use of gender-inclusive language, due undoubtedly to the explicit complementarian perspective of the book, but there is no mention of women serving in any form of missions outside of the preface (vii) and a brief nod to Lottie Moon and Amy Carmichael (124). Throughout the volume, when the authors say “Christian” what they really mean is evangelical Christian. This form of “orthodox evangelical theology” consists of specific theological particularities including: Adam and Eve were historical persons (71), a calvinistic orientation on the sovereignty of God (73–74), biblical inerrancy (75, 211), original sin (76), eternal conscious torment in hell which will include the unreached (77, 83–88), strictly complementarian roles in regard to the office of pastor/elder/overseer (211), and yet a deafening silence and openness on specific eschatological interpretations (90–91) and other theological positions not central to the SBC tribe. This is most clearly seen in the description of an “unreached” people group as a population “in which less than 2% of the population is Evangelical Christians” (29, emphasis added).

Written in language like a popular-level work, this title would be inappropriate as a seminary-level textbook. This is made clear by the explicit identification of recent high school graduates as the readers of the text (149). Ironically, one of the most succinct and insightful sections of the volume, which discusses the challenges of culture shock and language acquisition, was excerpted from another work by M. David Sills (224–31). This unit merely serves to highlight the quality with which this entire text could have been written but was ultimately unable to accomplish.

Introduction to Global Missions also employs caricature to distinguish itself from other parts of the Christian tradition with which it has sometimes significant difference. This includes assumptions about issues like hermeneutics:

The fact that unregenerate men and women are capable of reading contradictory messages into the text of Scripture is no reason to despair of the ability of believers, with the illumination of the Holy Spirit, to discern the meaning of the Scripture clearly. Many methods of popular Bible study do indeed lead to wildly divergent interpretations of the text, but such methods often have little to do with what the text actually says in its context, and responsible exegesis leads to remarkably consistent results. (75)

There is also an immense minimization (less than a page covering the first five centuries after the New Testament) and caricaturing of Roman Catholic missions history:

Whether in the new world or in Asia, the lasting legacy of Roman Catholic missions was often a syncretistic mix of Catholic Christianity and animistic religions. Forced conversions, cultural differences, and poor methods of contextualization left many “converts” continuing to worship their old gods but with different names. Churches replaced shrines and saints replaced pagan gods, but only on the outside. Roman Catholic missions opened the world to Christianity, but later missionaries, both Catholic and Protestant, faced great difficulty in unraveling the mix left behind by the early conquering churches. (106)

This prejudice is heightened by the entirety of the sixth chapter, which reflects only the positive contributions of “healthy missions,” a designation used numerous times in surveying the expansion of the Christian faith in “the Great Century and beyond” (115).

Lacking in overall depth and scope, Introduction to Global Mission fails to engage the contributions of many important scholars and practitioners or the larger Christian tradition generally. It provides the reader with no acknowledgement of any positive developments in missiology outside of Protestantism and recognizes no developments or documents to be as important as the Southern Baptist Convention’s International Mission Board and the Baptist Faith and Message, with an occasional nod to other evangelical organizations like the Lausanne Committee for World Evangelization.

Ultimately, this text will be helpful to those wishing to create an introductory course in missions for conservative evangelical undergraduate students who theologically resemble the Southern Baptist Convention. Those looking for an introductory text outside of this slice of evangelicalism would do well to look elsewhere.

Michael Hanegan


Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

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“Watershed Discipleship” (Editorial Preface to the Issue)

Would you risk being baptized in your local river or pond? In many places—such as northeastern Indiana where I used to live—immersing oneself in a local body of water now means exposure to a bath of chemicals and coliform bacteria, particularly after a rain, and at certain times of the year when crops are being sprayed. Most bodies of water in the United States have a fishing advisory that tells consumers how many fish can safely be eaten before health may be adversely affected by the toxic load the fish carry. In less “developed” countries across the world, where there are no environmental regulations, rivers function as a moving trash heap, carrying garbage and dead fish downriver from factories and villages. This failing health of our rivers and the watersheds that feed them is symptomatic of a greater global pathology wrought by industrial civilization.

The language of environmental catastrophe is apocalyptic: a garbage patch of plastics the size of Texas floats in the Pacific; a coal slurry spill into North Carolina’s Dan river evokes Isaiah’s vision of Edom’s streams turning to pitch. Meanwhile, a Coca-Cola plant in India’s Uttar Pradesh guzzles groundwater in return for spewing out toxins affecting local streams and soils.1 In early 2014, Freedom Industries was responsible for the leak of a hazardous coal washing chemical which left residents of nine West Virginia counties without potable water for five days, causing toxicity to the Elk river watershed.2 Every year, the world loses more and more topsoil to the sea due to industrial farming practices and deforestation.3 Details of the destruction are fastidiously collected. Peak oil, peak phosphorus, and peak water coalesce out of data points into pinnacles on scientists’ presentations. If the world has not already passed these peaks, it is surely on the cusp, they say.

This accumulating evidence suggests that humankind needs a drastic change in our way of life. Yet the looming catastrophes prophesied on the lips of our modern science sages fail to elicit change. We continue living like lemmings dangerously close to the looming cliffs of peak oil, peak water, and peak phosphorus. Perhaps we can no longer imagine a form of life without consumption based upon petrochemicals, industrial agriculture, and prepackaged food. We need a revolution of imagination. Yet, Bill Mollison, cofounder of the permaculture movement, reminds us of the “futility of revolutionaries who have no gardens, who depend on the very system they attack, who produce words and bullets, not food and shelter.”4 The change from toxic consumption to regenerative production must thus begin at the local level.

Disciples desperately need resources that will animate a church ready to stand against the tide of ecocidal petro-capitalism. This issue of Missio Dei Journal addresses this need for transformation by integrating ecological and theological concerns under the framework of “Watershed Discipleship.” Coined by theologian Ched Myers, Watershed Discipleship recognizes that environmental theology and ethics are often too disconnected from the everyday life of the faithful. Implicit to this paradigm is the understanding that the watershed—a geographic area drained into a body of water—is the primary unit of ecological systems, and thus the place where disciples can exert the most influence. Since water is fundamental to life, species within a given area are all connected by the flow of water through it. Thus, by invoking the watershed in our Christian discipleship, we acknowledge that our faith is bound to the land, plants, and creatures within it, as well as the water coursing through all of them. Our faith must follow the aquatic contours of the land, first, because we affirm the goodness of the earth, waters, and their creatures. To despoil the land is to spite the Creator—“there are no unsacred places,” writes Wendell Berry, “only sacred and desecrated places.”5 Second, we acknowledge that water issues are justice issues. Access to clean water is foundational to human health and wholeness, and increasingly a privilege of the wealthy.

Watershed Discipleship offers missiology a more holistic attention to context. If “mission is the mother of theology,” then place is the mother of mission—which is to say that mission occurs in particular regions, home to specific peoples and habitat to distinct flora and fauna. By re-placing discipleship in the foreground of the watershed, the church acknowledges that we both influence and are shaped by the specifics of our location. We are always followers of Jesus in a certain place. The climate, topography of the land, and the flow of water over it define that place. Daily losses of unrecoverable species and unique ecosystems caused by the gluttonous consumption of industrial civilization interrogate our idea of discipleship. If a missiology of “re-place-ment” is to mean something, it must cause us to reexamine the ways our livelihoods interact with the watersheds we inhabit.

Second, Watershed Discipleship provides new approaches to transform the ruin of global ecological systems wrought by industrial civilization. If watersheds are the fundamental unit of ecology, re-placement helps disciples perceive the level at which they can affect real change. Because we live during a watershed moment in history—a time when industrial civilization is at its peak and the actions taken by industrial societies in the coming years could affect the globe for centuries—we can act out of love for all the world by acting with integrity in our own unique places. By cleaning and protecting our watersheds, one at a time, we may reverse the steady poisoning of the world.

Finally, by placing ourselves under the tutelage of our own watersheds, we begin to know what it means to be “placed.” The solutions for making life work in an ecological context are already under our feet. The cactus survives drought by catching and storing enough rainwater to survive the dry season. Dryland human communities do the same with cisterns. Ephemeral vegetation thrives on the shady forest floor by leafing out before the overstory does, thereby catching enough sunlight to live through the shady summer. Animal communities depend on these ephemerals for nourishment in the sparse days before spring—historically, many humans have as well. How does the squirrel live through the long winter? Not by importing goods with fossil fuels, but by storing up enough during times of abundance. Followers of Jesus must consider again the “birds of the air,” and the “lilies of the field” (Matt 6:26–29). By doing so, we join the chorus of creation, with each species inhabiting its niche in the world. Understanding the topography and soil, how the birds and foxes make it through winter, or the times when the native flowers bloom—these things teach us what it means to live with integrity, fully integrated in place.

1 “Court Allows Coca-Cola Plant to Reopen in Uttar Pradesh,” The New York Times, India Ink: Notes on the World’s Largest Democracy, June 20, 2014,

2 Ken Ward Jr., “Freedom Industries cited for Elk chemical spill,” The Charleston Gazette, January 10, 2014, After testing of the chemical on laboratory animals, Eastman Chemicals deemed it “hazardous,” according to Evan Osnos, “Chemical Valley: The Coal Industry, the Politicians, and the Big Spill,” The New Yorker, April 7 2014,

3 World Economic Forum, “What If The World’s Soil Runs Out?,” TIME, December 14, 2012,

4 Bill Millison, Permaculture: A Practical Guide for a Sustainable Future (Washington, DC: Island Press, 1990), 5.

5 Wendell Berry, Given: Poems (Berkeley: CounterPoint Press, 2005), 18.

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Reinhabiting the River of Life (Rev 22:1-2): Rehydration, Redemption and Watershed Discipleship

Water lies at the center of our Christian sign of baptism and our current ecological crises and, thus, deserves deeper theological treatment. This paper explores visions of “redemption as rehydration” in the prophetic literature, then it traces resonant themes into the Apocalypse’s “river of the water of life” (Rev 22:1). It next explores how water provides a “metaphorical map of God” and why hydrologic systems should be a key characteristic of how humans dwell in creation. The paper concludes with a call to watershed-based discipleship as a faithful response to Christian mission amidst our looming environmental catastrophes..

“El agua es la vida!” –New Mexican proverb

“The health of our waters is the principle measure of how we live on the land.” –Luna Leopold

The ancient Christian ritual of baptism articulates an ecological fact: without water there can be no life. We rightly speak of baptismal waters as the symbolic source of renewal in Christ—a metaphor predicated in part upon the deep biblical tradition concerning “living waters” I will explore below. Today, however, Christians can no longer responsibly invoke this venerable tradition without also acknowledging the ecological realities of our context, which include the systematic dehydration of the earth by industrial civilization.

Deepening and interlocking environmental crises stalk our history, including climate destruction, species extinction, and declining natural fertility. Among these, one of the most pressing is “peak water.” Peter Gleick of the Pacific Institute describes this as the critical point, already reached in many areas of the world, where we have overtaxed the planet’s ability to absorb the consequences of our water use.1 Its global symptoms include widespread desertification, water insecurity, declining water quality, and the drift toward international water wars.2 The grim specter of peak water represents the dark opposite of baptism; it portends only death. It is a keystone “sign of our times” that reveals afresh the old gospel imperative to “turn around” as an historic ultimatum.

End-game ecological trends press Christians to re-read our tradition from the perspective of the groaning creation, as did Paul in Romans 8:21–22—including and especially our theology and practices of mission. Water is a strategic place to start. It is the resource we North Americans arguably most take for granted—a privileged and unsustainable conceit that must change. This paper will argue for re-centering faith and mission around “watershed discipleship” as a matter of social justice, ecological sustainability, and theological fidelity. This imperative proceeds both from ancient biblical visions and current realities of water scarcity.

Prophetic Visions of Redemption as Rehydration

The biblical story begins (Gen 1:2) and ends (Rev 22) in a “waterworld.” This represents a primal scriptural expression of basic ecological truth: water is the single most important component in the birth and continuation of life—we might say, the Alpha and Omega of creation. Water thus deserves more careful social, ecological, and theological attention than it has received in our churches.3

The first half of this paper will look at John the Revelator’s extraordinary eschatological vision of social and environmental restoration through a divine “rehydration” of the earth. John was clearly nurtured by a recurring strand in Hebrew prophetic literature, so let me begin by acknowledging this rich “imaginary” of an ancient desert people.4

It remains a well-kept secret in our churches that the tradition of prophetic judgment in the Hebrew Bible articulates divine salvation most often in terms of the renewal—not destruction—of the earth. In Isaiah, for example, the imperial civilizations that surrounded (and oppressed) Israel are indeed promised demolition by divine judgment; the land, however, is rehabilitated through “rewilding,” as undomesticated animals re-inhabit decaying cities (13:19–22) and wild birds roost in abandoned fortresses (34:8–15).5

One expression of redemption as the restoration of creation is found in prophetic visions of eschatological reforestation. Israel’s seers may have understood that the arid climate of their Palestinian homeland was not natural but rather the result of historic processes of desertification due to the relentless imperial economic exploitation of the land. Indeed, ecological archaeology has established that the ancient Mediterranean world was largely deforested by the time of the eighth-century prophets.6 This may explain their rage over the clear-cutting of highland hardwood forests (Zech 11:1ff.; Isa 14:3–8, 37:22–24; Solomon was also guilty: 1 Kgs 5:6ff.). They longed for Yahweh’s judgment that would save the threatened forests: “The cypresses exult over you, the cedars of Lebanon,” Isaiah inveighs against the king of Babylon, “saying, ‘Since you were laid low, no one comes to cut us down’ ” (Isa 14:8).7

The most well-known example of this motif is found in Isaiah 35, which begins with the promise that parched lands will once again host “the glory of Lebanon” (Isa 35:1ff.; i.e., the great cedar forests of the north). The poem goes on to promise not only an end to human physical disabilities (35:3–6a) but the healing of creation itself:

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water;

the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp,

the grass shall become reeds and rushes. (35:6b–7)

Restored habitat brings the return of wild animals (see also Isa 43:20). And all this renewal is made possible because water is flowing again everywhere.

Second Isaiah echoes the idea that both people (especially those marginalized by empire) and forests will be restored:

When the poor and needy seek water,

and there is none, and their tongue is parched with thirst,

I the LORD will answer them, I the God of Israel will not forsake them.

I will open rivers on the bare heights,

and fountains in the midst of the valleys;

I will make the wilderness a pool of water,

and the dry land springs of water.

I will put in the wilderness the cedar, the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;

I will set in the desert the cypress, the plane and the pine together. (Isa 41:17–19.)

Just as Pharaoh’s army was drowned in the old Exodus story (Exod 14), here the travails of empire similarly disappear under water.

The promise of rehydration recurs in the proto-apocalyptic oracles of several later Israelite prophets. Joel prophesies that “all the watercourses of Judah shall flow with water, and a spring shall issue from the House of the Lord and shall water the Wadi of the Acacias” (Joel 4:18; njps). Zechariah portends: “In that day, fresh water shall flow from Jerusalem, part of it to the Eastern Sea and part to the Western Sea, throughout the summer and winter” (Zech 14:8; njps). But the most elaborate development of this motif is found in Ezek 47:1–12, the culmination of his lengthy description of eschatological Israel, its land and temple-city (Ezek 40–48).

The first part of the oracle narrates in refrain how water is flowing out of the temple toward the four directions (47:1–2). Then comes another refrain in which the rising tide is measured, from ankle, to knee, to waist-deep, to “a river that could not be crossed” (47:3–5). Implied here is the rehabilitation of the Gihon spring that (inconsistently) supplied water to Jerusalem.8 Ezekiel then imagines Palestine “greened” all the way to the Dead Sea (47:6–12). But unlike the flood of Genesis 7, Ezekiel’s surging river is life-giving, indicated by the explosion of fecundity that occurs within and beside it: “everything will live where the river goes” (v. 9).9 The vision culminates with an ever-bearing, perennial riparian forest, providing food and medicine (v. 12). This nod to the Garden of Eden story is later re-appropriated by John the Revelator, effectively bracketing (like the waterworld image) the biblical story.

Israel during the biblical period was a dry place indeed, with only a couple of major rivers, few perennial streams, and unreliable springs. So these extraordinary visions of redemption as rehydration bear witness to the fact that in Palestine, water lay at the heart of environmental sustainability, social justice, and divine concern.10

The River of the Water of Life

John of Patmos’s “river of the water of life” (Rev 22:1ff.) is patterned in part on Ezek 47. A careful examination of this image reveals a rich theological and ecological texture. First and foremost, this eschatological river stands in stark contrast to the realities of John’s late first-century CE readers. Those living in arid Mediterranean climate were familiar chiefly with the stagnant, torpid water found in small ponds, seasonal wells, catchment tanks, ritual baths, or clay pots. Domestic water quality was often poor (hence the advice of 1 Tim 5:23). John’s river, however, “shines like crystal” (lampron hōs krustallon; Rev 22:1; cf. 4:6). This is not a supernatural assertion but a poetic observation: pure water indeed appears crystalline when it is flowing freely (think of the dancing silver strands of a mountain stream). The phrase “river of the water of life” (potamon hudatos zoēs) connotes exactly that: the running, bubbling, lively water of a spring or brook.11 Experiences of such “living water,” as the Gospel of John puts it (hudōr zōn; John 4:10; 7:38), were rare indeed for this desert people. This signals a dramatic restoration of life to the land and those dwelling on it, just as the Hebrew prophets had envisioned.

John’s river, moreover, flows through “the middle of the great street of the city” (Rev 22:2; niv). The Greek term plateia connotes the main thoroughfare (or plaza) of a Hellenistic metropolis. Poignantly, earlier in the Apocalypse this plateia was the space of political violence, where the bodies of two prophets murdered by the imperial beast lay in public view for three and a half days as a spectacle of state terror (Rev 11:8–9). But now this street has become “pure gold, transparent as glass” (Rev 21:21).12 The New Jerusalem’s main street has dissolved into a river of life that washes away the blood of empire.13

There is another way in which this river symbolizes liberation from empire. Elsewhere in Revelation the water of life is depicted as a spring (pēgē). The martyrs who live “before the throne of God . . . will not hunger or thirst anymore, nor will the sun or any heat strike them; for the Lamb who is in the center of the throne will shepherd them and lead them to springs of living water” (zoēs pēgas hudatōn; Rev 7:15–17; author’s translation). This is a pointed recontextualization of Isa 49:10, an oracle of emancipation. Moreover, this spring is a “gift” (Rev 21:6; tēs pēgēs tou hudatos tēs zoēs dōrean); “Let the one who thirsts come forward, and . . . receive the gift of living water” (22:17; hudōr zoēs dōrean; author’s translation). Here is more midrash on the subversive vision of second Isaiah—“All who are thirsty, come for water, even if you have no money” (Isa 55:1; njps)—which was a rebuke of the currency-dependent commodity markets of empire and a reassertion of the gift economy of nature.14

Yet, these living waters are not springing up from the ground, but “proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb” (Rev 22:1; nkjv). This primal notion of Yhwh as a cosmic fount, too, is found in several places in the Hebrew Bible. “For with You is the spring of life,” sings the Psalmist (Ps 36:9; MT, mĕqôr ḥayîym; LXX, pēgē zoēs). And Jeremiah laments:

My people have committed two evils:

they have forsaken Me,

the fountain of living water (MT, mĕqôr mayim ḥayîym; LXX, pēgēn hudatos zoēs)

and dug out cisterns for themselves,

cracked cisterns that can hold no water (Jer 2:13).15

Lastly, as in Ezekiel 47, John’s freely and abundantly flowing river provides habitat for the tree of life, which yields spectacular fruits each month (Rev 22:2). Its twelve crops correspond to the central symbolic number of the Apocalypse (in which dōdeka appears 20 times). This figure also represents the restored nation of Israel, hearkening back to its roots in the tribal confederacy (a theme also explicitly addressed in Ezek 47:13–48:35). But for John of Patmos, this is an inclusive political vision. As in Ezekiel, the leaves of the tree are for healing, but here specifically for the nations, including presumably the “kings of the earth” who have been welcomed into the city (Rev 21:24). Even empire is healed in the end—but only when eclipsed by the ecology of life.

The Revelator has cosmically “transplanted” both tree and river from the primeval garden (Gen 2:9ff.) into the heart of the eschatological city. But the former has transfigured the latter: it is unrecognizable as an urban space—at least as defined by our civilization, which builds cities over and against nature. The New Jerusalem has been thoroughly “permaculturized,” a lush food forest taking the place of the hard urban jungle. And all because the world has been resaturated with the waters of life.

These prophetic visions represent profound articulations of social and environmental restorative justice from a people for whom dehydration was a daily reality. They speak equally sharply to today, in which our lands are again parched and compromised by imperial hubris. Hostage as we are to the specter of “peak water” and resource wars, we would do well to reconsider such old wisdom.

God’s Map: Theology and Geography

In a society characterized by (and dependent upon) the relentless commodification and privatization of the primary gift of life, how might we embrace the radical and compelling biblical hope that every thirst will be quenched? The task facing us is both theological and practical.

If all talk about God is necessarily metaphorical, then surely water is a primary theological trope, as suggested by the frequent biblical imagery identifying water tightly with the divine. Four essential characteristics of water certainly pertain also to the Creator.

First and foremost, as noted, there can be no life without water. It is the primary building block of creation, covering 71% of the earth’s surface and constituting on average 60% of the human body. It restores but cannot be destroyed—though if it is degraded it can lose its healing character.

Second, water is the only natural element that can exist in all three common states: liquid, solid, and gaseous. Moreover, in the hydrologic cycle it circulates from the heavens (condensation, precipitation) to earth and beneath (infiltration), to the sea and other large bodies of water (surface runoff, groundwater discharge), and finally back to the heavens (evaporation). These many forms represent a great circle of life—which one might argue also characterizes the circulation of the Spirit.16

Third, water manifests a spectrum of traits often attributed to the divine. It can be patient and accommodating, flowing around obstacles, yet also has the power to wear down the greatest physical structures (or burst them apart through expanding ice). Water makes hard things smooth over time; it is also an amazing solvent and thus is rightly used in purification. It can be still and gentle but also relentless and ferocious. Surface water has the capacity to carry but also to drown—immersion can lead either to life or to death (the Bible is full of examples of both).

Finally, water is a symbol of justice. It is most substantial and alive when fluid, but can turn morbid if stagnant. It wants to flow downward, seeking level, a poignant metaphor of divine concern for the “lowest.” Thus Amos famously appeals for “justice to flow down like a perennial stream” (Amos 5:24; author’s translation).17

Water thus provides a kind of metaphorical “map of God.” Conversely, it also figures fundamentally in God’s map of creation. To illustrate this, compare the two photographs below.

Above is an aerial photograph of the San Rafael Swell on the Colorado Plateau in Utah.18 It shows clearly that even in the most arid climate on the continent, the single most distinctive and defining feature is the way water flows. A theological reading of this universal geographical truism would conclude that water patterns are the chief design features of a creation that has not been re-engineered by human society.

In contrast, the image below is an aerial view of nearby Las Vegas, NV, whose patterns are typical of modern urban sprawl.19 What is evident from such an (over)built environment is not where water flows—that is almost impossible to discern—but rather where automobile traffic flows. It is virtually all artifice.

The profound differences between these two design patterns capture the essence of what is ecologically unsustainable about industrial civilization. If our defiance of nature (represented by the second image) has brought us to the brink of collapse, then a radical response is called for—that is, one that goes to the roots of how the earth was/is made (represented by the first image). We have lost our way as creatures of God’s biosphere, and only the map that is woven into creation can lead us home. That map is defined by water.

John Wesley Powell, the first non-native person to raft successfully down the Colorado River in the 1860s, gave us our first modern definition of a watershed:

It is that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of the community.20

The fact is, wherever we reside—city, suburb, or rural area—our lives are deeply intertwined within such a “bounded hydrologic system.” Precipitation hits the ridges and either flows into our watershed or into a neighboring one, drained by a watercourse and its tributaries (even if buried under concrete).

The area covered in the water’s journey from its origination in the natural hydrological cycle to its end point in a particular body of water such as a pond, lake, or ocean is the watershed. Each one is made up of a unique mix of habitats that influence each other, including forests, wetlands, fields and meadows, rivers and lakes, farms and towns. The 2,110 watersheds in the continental US come in all sizes. The Mississippi Basin is the 3rd largest watershed in the world, draining 41% of the lower 48 states into the Gulf of Mexico. The Ventura River watershed where I live is a scant 227 square miles.

All life is watershed-placed without exception—and our ignorance about this fact is disastrous. Brock Dolman, a permaculturist and founder of Occidental Art and Ecology Center in Northern California, argues that “watersheds underlie all human endeavors and form the foundation for all future aspirations and survival.” Cupping his hands, he invokes the metaphor of a cradle, which he calls a “Basin of Relations,” in which every living organism is interconnected and dependent on the health of the whole. This form of “social, local, intentional community with other life forms and inanimate processes, like the fire cycle and the hydrological cycle,” he says, represents “the geographic scale of applied sustainability, which must be regenerative, because we desperately are in need of making up for lost time.”21

Watershed mapping is a practical tool for advancing our literacy in the actual landscapes that sustain us.22 It can help us re-imagine a world beyond maps that are social re-productions enshrining problematic historical legacies of colonization and exploitation, while rendering nature secondary (or altogether invisible). Kirkpatrick Sale’s definition of bioregionalism is helpful here:

Bio is from the Greek word for forms of life . . . and region is from the Latin regere, territory to be ruled. . . . They convey together a life-territory, a place defined by its life forms, its topography and its biota, rather than by human dictates; a region governed by nature, not legislature. And if the concept initially strikes us as strange, that may perhaps only be a measure of how distant we have become from the wisdom it conveys.23

Below is a recent watershed map of the US imagined by John Lavey.24 Political boundaries are often straight (no continental US state is without one), while watershed ones never are. Straight lines are the first order of abstraction, alienating us from the topographical and hydrological realities that sustain life. How might our political culture change if our most basic unit of governance was “nature rather than legislature”?

Toward Watershed Discipleship

In the environmental movement, bioregional thought and practice has spread widely and matured deeply over the last quarter century.25 Yet this school of thought has been almost entirely ignored by Christian theology and ethics until very recently.26 However, I am convinced that a watershed paradigm not only holds the key to our survival as a species; it can also inspire the next great renewal of the church—in light of, not in spite of, the looming ecological endgame.

What would it mean for Christians to center our identity in the topography of creation rather than in the political geography of dominant cultural ideation, grounding our discipleship practices in the watershed in which we reside, within which everything must be engaged in terms of environmental resiliency and social justice?

In our education and organizing at Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries we are proposing “watershed discipleship” as a framing idea, which seems to be resonating widely. The phrase is an intentional triple entendre.

  1. It recognizes that we are in a watershed historical moment of crisis, which demands that environmental, social justice, and sustainability be integral to everything we do as Christians and as citizen inhabitants of specific places.
  2. It acknowledges the inescapably bioregional locus of an incarnational following of Jesus: our discipleship and the life of the local church necessarily take place in a watershed context.
  3. It suggests that we need to be disciples of our watersheds. In the New Testament, discipleship is a journey of learning from, following, and coming to trust the “rabbi”—which in this case is the “Book of Creation.” The challenge here, to paraphrase the argument made in 1968 by the Senegalese environmentalist Baba Dioum, is that
    • We won’t save places we don’t love.
    • We can’t love places we don’t know.
    • We don’t know places we haven’t learned.

From the beginning of human history, nothing was more crucial to the survival and flourishing of traditional societies than literacy in and symbiotic relationship with one’s watershed. It remains the case today—but we have a long way to go to reconstruct the intimacy required to know and save our places.

Obviously, understanding contextual Christian mission fundamentally in terms of healing our world by restoring the social and ecological health of our respective watersheds is a perspective still marginal in our churches. Yet, I believe ecclesial communities re-grounded in their watersheds can make an enormous contribution to the wider historic struggle to reverse the looming ecological catastrophe—and in the process, recover the “terrestrial soul” of a faith tradition that too often tends toward docetism.27 Christians are deeply culpable in the present crisis, but we also have ancient resources for the deep shifts needed.

Watershed discipleship is an expression of Christian mission because it seeks to partner with God’s mission of healing. The Apostle Paul claims that creation is “groaning in travail” waiting for the “children of God” to be fully “revealed,” in order that we might partner with the divine work of liberation and healing (Rom 8:19–24a).28 This suggests that our primary human vocation is not to re-engineer creation for exclusive human benefit—an impulse biblically identified with the fall in Genesis.29 Rather, the mission of the church is to help humans rediscover our proper place in, and to work for the healing and preservation of, the community of creation.30

Key to Creator’s ecological and eschatological redemption of creation is the renewing power of the water of life. This is previewed in Christian baptism, which in turn animates our mission to inhabit and incarnate that blessed hope in a thirsty world. Watershed discipleship can and should help define the shape of that mission in this historical moment of crisis.

Ched Myers is an activist theologian who has worked in social change movements for almost 40 years. His books include Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus (Orbis, [1988]2008) and, most recently, Our God Is Undocumented: Biblical Faith and Immigrant Justice (with Matthew Colwell; Orbis, 2012). He is a co-founder of the Watershed Discipleship Alliance ( and works with Bartimaeus Cooperative Ministries in southern California ( His publications can be found at


Aberly, Douglas. Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment. Philadelphia: New Society, 1993.

Aboriginal Mapping Network.

Andruss, Van, Christopher Plant, Judith Plant, and Eleanor Wright, eds. Home! A Bioregional Reader. Philadelphia: New Society, 1990.

Barlow, Maude. Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water. New York: New Press, 2008.

Bell, Alexander. Peak Water: Civilisation and the World’s Water Crisis. 2nd ed. Edinburgh: Luath, 2012.

Carr, Mike. Bioregionalism and Civil Society: Democratic Challenges to Corporate Globalism. Sustainability and the Environment Series. Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2004.

Chellaney, Brahma. Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013.

Diamond, Jared. Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. New York: Penguin, 2005.

Dolman, Brock. Basins of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watershed. 2nd ed. Occidental, CA: Water Institute, 2008.

Gleick, Peter H., ed. The World’s Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources. Vol. 8. Washington, DC: Island Press, 2014.

Hiebert, Theodore. The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

If Americans Knew. “Water in Palestine.”

Loeffler, Jack, and Celestia Loeffler, eds. Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012.

Myers, Ched. “The Cedar Has Fallen! The Prophetic Word vs. Imperial Clear-Cutting.” In Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, edited by David Rhoads, 211–23. New York: Continuum, 2007.

________. “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: Re-Placing Ecological Theology and Practice.” Conrad Grebel Review 32, no. 3 (Fall 2014): forthcoming.

________. “From Garden to Tower: Genesis 1–11 as a Critique of Civilization and an Invitation to Indigenous Re-Visioning.” In Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together, edited by Steve Heinrichs, 109–21. Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2013.

________. Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994.

National Geographic Education. “Mapping the World’s Watersheds.”

Oosthoek, K. J. W. “The Role of Wood in World History.” Environmental History Resources.

Peppard, Christiana. Just Water: Theology, Ethics and the Global Water Crisis. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2014.

Powell, J. W. The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons. New York: Dover, 1961.

Prandoni, Marita. “Know Your Lifeboat: An Interview with Permaculturist Brock Dolman.” Eco Zine. EcoHearth. November 10, 2011.

Sale, Kirkpatrick. Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision. San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1985.

Scott Cato, Mary. The Bioregional Economy: Land, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness. New York: Routledge, 2013.

Snyder, Gary. A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1995.

Thayer, Robert L., ed. Lifeplace: Bioregional Thought and Practice. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003.

Woodley, Randy. Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision. Prophetic Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

1 See Peter H. Gleick, ed., The World’s Water: The Biennial Report on Freshwater Resources, vol. 8 (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2014); see also Alexander Bell, Peak Water: Civilisation and the World’s Water Crisis, 2nd ed. (Edinburgh: Luath, 2012);;; and

2 See Brahma Chellaney, Water, Peace, and War: Confronting the Global Water Crisis (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2013); Maude Barlow, Blue Covenant: The Global Water Crisis and the Coming Battle for the Right to Water (New York: New Press, 2008). If present trends continue, it is estimated that 1.8 billion people will be living with absolute water scarcity by 2025, and two-thirds of the world population could be subject to water stress.

3 A recent engagement with this task is Christiana Peppard, Just Water: Theology, Ethics and the Global Water Crisis (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2014).

4 As an adjective, imaginary is typically defined as “not real,” or “existing only in the mind or imagination”; the noun is traditionally a mathematical (or occasionally artistic) term. However, given its etymological roots in the Latin imago, I here use the noun to suggest the poetic ways in which biblical writers envisioned a redeemed creation as a reflection of the imago Dei—far from fictive, these visions meant to portray the transfigured real.

5 Modern American Christian apocalypticism’s blithe tendency to anticipate earth’s demise while the church rides shotgun with contemporary empire thus has the tradition exactly backwards—with sobering political consequences.

6 See e.g. K. J. W. Oosthoek, “The Role of Wood in World History,” Environmental History Resources, In antiquity, the deforestation that resulted from successive Mesopotamian kingdoms figured prominently in the decline of Sumerian civilization, according to Jared Diamond, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (New York: Penguin, 2005). Deforestation exposed the salt-rich sedimentary rocks of the northern mountains to erosion; the Euphrates, Tigris, and Karun rivers and tributaries began to fill with salt and silt, clogging up the irrigation canals. After 1,500 years of successful farming, a serious salinity problem suddenly developed; declining food production resulted, signaling the beginning of the end for Sumerian civilization.

7 Scripture quotations are from the NRSV unless noted otherwise. For an ecological, political, and theological exploration of this theme, see my “The Cedar Has Fallen! The Prophetic Word vs. Imperial Clear-Cutting,” in Earth and Word: Classic Sermons on Saving the Planet, ed. David Rhoads (New York: Continuum, 2007).

8 Theodore Hiebert, The Yahwist’s Landscape: Nature and Religion in Early Israel (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 53–58, notes that Gihon is one of the four rivers of the Garden of Eden (Gen 2:13), and shows how the biblical literature often seems to identify Eden with the primeval Jordan Valley, before desertification, whose restoration was longed for.

9 Interestingly, this rehydration of the valley includes an “ecological” reserve of brackish swamps: “But its swamps and marshes will not become fresh; they are to be left for salt” (47:11).

10 This of course remains true today; on the politics of water in contemporary Israel/Palestine see, e.g., If Americans Knew, “Water in Palestine,”

11 In Gen 26:19 the Hebrew ḥay, which normally connotes “living” (often in terms of breath, as in the creation story), is used to describe a spring discovered by Isaac’s people while digging in a wadi, which provides living water, as opposed to stagnant or “dead water” (as an Arabic phrase puts it). Similarly, Jas 3:12 contrasts “sweet” spring water with that which is “bitter” or “salty.” The pejorative phrase “waterless springs” (2 Pet 2:17) suggests that such disappointment was common.

12 See also 15:2. “Glasslikeness” (hualinos) has already been identified by John with water: God’s throne is perched upon “a sea of glass like crystal” (hōs thalassa hualinē homoia krustallō, 4:6; cf. 21:11, 18). In the NT, hualos/hualinos, and krustallos/krustallizō appear only in Revelation, but may imply the older meaning of “ice” (as in Homer and Herodotus).

13 Not to mention the raw sewage that would typically have run down the gutters of an ancient plateia.

14 This is echoed in John’s depiction of how precious stones and metals become as common as cobblestones in the New Jerusalem (21:11, 18–21); here the ecology of grace has triumphed over Rome’s predatory trade in those very same resources (18:12).

15 Note the irony: Judeans are abandoning fresh streams for the stagnant waters of leaky catchments (see also Jer 17:13). This biblical vocabulary is also linked to fertility: mĕqôr can be a euphemism for a “fount” of descendants (e.g. Ps 68:27; Prov 5:18; Isa 48:1), and “living waters” (mayim ḥayîym) is a euphemism for a woman’s sex (Song 4:15).

16 To push the analogy, the molecular structure of H2O could even be characterized as trinitarian: one oxygen and two hydrogen atoms, connected by covalent bonds (the stable balance of attractive and repulsive forces between atoms when they share electrons) represents an elegant and unique model of balance and relationality.

17 The Hebrew êtān when used in conjunction with water connotes a never-failing flow (see Deut 21:4). The seventh month is called “Ethanim”—the season of continual water (1 Kgs 8:2). Ps 74:15 praises Yhwh as the one who “releases springs and streams, and who makes perennial rivers run dry” (author’s translation).

18 Image from Google Earth.

19 Image from Google Earth.

20 J. W. Powell, The Exploration of the Colorado River and Its Canyons (New York: Dover, 1961). In 1879, Powell proposed that as new states in the American west were brought into the union they be formed around watersheds, rather than arbitrary political boundaries (see his proposed map at He believed, presciently, that because of an arid climate, state organization decided by any other factor would lead to water conflict down the road. Powerful forces, however, most prominently the rail companies, were pressing for state borders to be aligned in ways believed to facilitate commercial agriculture. The west, Powell argued, was too dry, and its soils too poor, to support agriculture at a scale common in the East. But the rail lobby prevailed in Congress, with profound and enduring consequences. For a recent exploration of Powell’s legacy emphasizing indigenous cultures in the Southwest, see Jack Loeffler and Celestia Loeffler, eds., Thinking Like a Watershed: Voices from the West (Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 2012).

21 Marita Prandoni, “Know Your Lifeboat: An Interview with Permaculturist Brock Dolman,” Eco Zine, EcoHearth, November 10, 2011, See also Brock Dolman, Basins of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watershed, 2nd ed. (Occidental, CA: Water Institute, 2008).

22 See National Geographic Education, “Mapping the World’s Watersheds,”; Aboriginal Mapping Network,

23 Kirkpatrick Sale, Dwellers in the Land: The Bioregional Vision (San Francisco: Sierra Club Books, 1985), 43.

24 From Used by permission.

25 See e.g. Douglas Aberly, Boundaries of Home: Mapping for Local Empowerment (Philadelphia: New Society, 1993); Van Andruss, et al., eds., Home! A Bioregional Reader (Philadelphia: New Society, 1990); Gary Snyder, A Place in Space: Ethics, Aesthetics and Watersheds (Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint, 1995); Molly Scott Cato, The Bioregional Economy: Land, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness (New York: Routledge, 2013); Mike Carr, Bioregionalism and Civil Society: Democratic Challenges to Corporate Globalism, Sustainability and the Environment Series (Vancouver, BC: University of British Columbia Press, 2004); and Robert L. Thayer, ed., Lifeplace: Bioregional Thought and Practice (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003). Thayer’s comprehensive bibliography of bioregionalist writing prior to 1999 can be found at

26 Rare exceptions are found in the writing of Wendell Berry and the late Jim Corbett—neither of whom are professional theologians! Though I concluded my Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1994) by proposing a reconstructive theology and politics of bioregionalism (chapter 11), twenty years ago this did not find much of an audience among churches; gratefully, this is changing now.

27 For a more elaborated articulation of what watershed discipleship theology practices might be see my “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: Re-Placing Ecological Theology and Practice,” Conrad Grebel Review 32, no. 3 (Fall 2014): forthcoming; and Further characteristics and perspectives related to this emerging paradigm are explored in other articles in this issue of Missio Dei.

28 I read the text this way based on several exegetical observations. The “revelation” anticipated is apocalyptic (v. 18, apokaluptō; v. 19, apokalupsis)—suggesting an unmasking of our true human creaturehood. That the fate of human beings and nature is tightly interrelated is indicated by the dialectical assertion that creation will share our “liberation” (eleutheria, v. 21) even as we share creation’s “groan” (v. 23). The verbs in vv. 22 (sustenazō, only here in the NT) and 23 (stenazō) may allude to the “groan” of the Israelites under slavery (LXX, stenagmos; Exod 2:24, 6:5, as in Rom 8:26). This hope for the liberation of all of creation defines what it means to be “saved” (v. 24a).

29 On the Fall as rebellion against the ecology of creaturehood see my “From Garden to Tower: Genesis 1–11 as a Critique of Civilization and an Invitation to Indigenous Re-Visioning,” in Buffalo Shout, Salmon Cry: Conversations on Creation, Land Justice, and Life Together, ed. Steve Heinrichs (Waterloo, ON: Herald, 2013), 109–21.

30 This notion has been developed by evangelical native theologian Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Prophetic Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012).

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The Transfigured Earth: Political Theology and Bioregional Imagination

A politics of the transfigured earth must pay attention to the ravens and lilies of the field, confessing the woven thread between human communities and the life and health of the earth. Jesus enacts the transfigured earth by pairing the renewal of society with a foreign leper healed in the Jordan watershed. This interpretation and numerous social movements offer ground for a bioregional imagination of reinhabitation: empowering people to live well together in places.

“Do unto those downstream as you would have those upstream do unto you” –Wendell Berry1

The World and the Earth

On a July evening, I sat in a hotel outside the Damascus Gate of Jerusalem’s Old City. Mahmoud Abu Eid, a Palestinian Muslim and family friend, told his story to a group of American travelers. He talked about checkpoints and home demolitions, about color-coded ID cards that classified him as a resident alien with ephemeral rights. He talked about seven generations of his family who had lived in that city. “We travel like other people, but we return to nowhere,” lamented the poet Mahmoud Darwish. “We have a country of words. Speak Speak so we may know the end of / this travel.”2

An exasperated listener blurted out, “Why do you stay in Palestine with so much persecution?”

Mahmoud smiled and said, “Because we have no other choice. This is my place. I love this land. Jesus loved this land, even though he once cursed it. But he cursed the actions, not the land.”

Christian theologians often stumble over the contours of land and place. Like the exasperated American traveler, they struggle to understand someone like Mahmoud who expresses an intimate affection for where he is. Theologians recognize the importance of place in biblical stories, but they have invested far more intellectual energy into puzzling over the meaning of time. A teleological bias tempts Christians to denigrate the places of the world. Place is misconstrued when theologians treat all the world as if it were merely the stage for time, and perhaps even an outdated theater in this industrial world where progress waits for no one and no place. Time-obsessed narratives like historical progress, development, or Manifest Destiny justify destroying places for the sake of some predetermined future. This endless linear march fuels an insatiable desire until that next purchase, trip, or salvation, which are always in the future. As Vine Deloria says, “If time becomes our primary consideration, we never seem to arrive at the reality of our existence in places.”3 The rhythms and shapes of place are eroded, viewed as amorphous backdrops easily substituted by anywhere else.

Devaluing place—which also usually means its people—equates the world, a famous biblical motif for the powers and principalities, with the earth, the biodiversity of ecosystems and human communities. Engagement with “the world” then often assumes a devastating conflation, represented and reinforced by three prevalent political theologies: nostalgia for Christendom, baptizing the state, and resident alienation.

Nostalgia for Christendom pines for the bygone days when the church ruled the world and avows that it must once again have dominion. Radical Orthodoxy is an intellectually influential form of this trend which occasionally provides critiques of modern liberalism and capitalism but often stays silent about Christendom’s immeasurable sins, such as the endorsement of countless imperial campaigns that evicted indigenous people from their homelands. In this ideology, the cross is turned upside down and sharpened into a righteous sword.

Most political theologians are suspicious of rerouting all roads toward Rome. But their default is to baptize governments like the United States of America while ignoring or endorsing state violence to make the world safe for representative democracy and globalized capitalism. Christian realists, maintaining that right should use might and that politics are all about forceful power, acknowledge the shortcomings of modern societies, but they are the lesser evil. Institutional wealth built on slavery and ethnic cleansing, increasing economic inequity, and the wreckage of soil, forests, and water are regretted as unfortunate byproducts. The US may not have committed more crimes than other imperial nations, historian Ronald Wright notes, but “it forgets them more quickly and more thoroughly.”4 Political theologies of the state suffer from amnesia concerning its terrors and its historical alternatives.

The third major trend will have none of this. Instead, Christians are resident aliens, citizens of a heavenly colony in the world but not of it, refusing the authority and splendor of the world’s kingdoms to remain perpetual exiles among them. But its mantra to “let the church be the church” obscures that churches are located somewhere surrounded by, and dependent on, neighbors they did not choose. Resident alienation, perceived separation from where and with whom we reside, can appease displaced Europeans while subsequently relegating indigenous people and refugees to exile. One resident alienated scholar told me that he mourned for a Native American Christian friend who could not overcome his “Zionist connection to tribe and land” to see the church as an alternative, and truer, community. Identity as exiles in a land that always remains foreign preserves the devastating conflation between the world-as-power and the world-as-earth, like equating the United States of America with the ecosocial body of the continent.5 We will not care for places if we are always aliens to them.

All three theologies see coercive power as the mainstay of politics and share a distrust of diversity. And all three, in varying degrees and fashions, are anthropocentric: the world is human-constructed systems that we either control or from which we escape, effectively overlooking the dependence of these human systems on the life and health of the earth. Each accepts a dangerous reduction of the world’s places and the possibilities for living in them.

“If only people with our ideals had power,” says the revolutionary vanguard before the new dictatorship is installed.

“If only we had the right person in office,” say the political parties before their candidate escalates his predecessor’s policies.

“If only the church would be the church,” say the resident aliens as neoliberalism exploits space and time.

“If only we had a king to lead us like everyone else,” say the elders of Israel to the old prophet Samuel, who then informs them what kings, and eventually empires, do best: centralize wealth and power through militarism and economic stratification by expropriating the best lands and extracting surpluses (1 Sam 8). Empire functions through globalizing placelessness: ignoring boundaries and scale by erecting ever-expanding borders. Any place will do for empire, because all places are equally expendable.

Wendell Berry notes that many American Christians have no place to lay our heads; we are perpetual strangers to our landscapes because our only Holy Land is one we may never see.6 For many, place is apparently just dirt: static and inert, something we wipe from our shoes. We forget that place is soil: living and dying, humming with organisms and complex horizons. Perhaps political theologians can be forgiven for this oversight, considering that our lives are far removed from the people, places, and processes that sustain us. But a displaced Christian theology of dominion has too often sanctified or ignored social and ecological destruction. We cannot divorce the social and the ecological because the former is immersed in and sustained by the latter. They co-evolved, and no matter how big we get we still depend on patterns of water, light, and soil.

The three major political theologies have encouraged, or at the least not discouraged, living beyond any sense of human scale. We need a resilient and regenerative scale that confesses the bond between human powers and the life and health of the earth.7 We never live nowhere and we never live alone; even if we constantly relocate we are always somewhere and we are always related to other lives. The polyphonic biblical narrative does not suggest a uniform perspective about the earth, but it also does not pine for a heavenly afterlife for the disembodied soul. From the Garden of Eden to the New Jerusalem, a recurring biblical icon of salvation is not a spectral heaven but a transfigured earth. This salvation depends on people who care about where they live and those who live there. The transfigured earth also depends on politics, not as control or escape, but as practices that help us live together in common places.8

Ecological theologies have blossomed dramatically as more people awaken to the social and ecological toll of a global economic system geared to overproduce items and waste for a minority of the world’s population. Scholars have scribed sophisticated treatments of biblical visions of the land and penned philosophical treatises on anthropocentrism and creation, but these interpretations often struggle to translate generalized theory into sets of practices that enable people to dwell well together. A politics of the transfigured earth must pay attention to the ravens and the lilies of the field, to the distinctive creatures and places around us. If we do so, then we might consider bioregions as meaningful sites of action and reflection.

Reinhabiting the Transfigured Earth

Bioregions are the confluence of patterns like watersheds and landforms, soil and vegetation types, climate, and human interaction. Bioregions are places with negotiated cultural and ecological boundaries in which we know the scale of our actions, these actions are sensitive to feedback, and inhabitants can be included in making decisions. Even though these boundaries are fluid, they are more viable than arbitrary political lines.9

I currently live in the Shenandoah Valley, part of the Ridge and Valley subsection of the Great Appalachian Valley in North America. This two-hundred-mile basin is hemmed by the Allegheny Mountains to the west, the Blue Ridge Mountains to the east, and the Potomac and James Rivers to the north and south respectively. Shenandoah is carpeted with mixed hardwood forests and fertile limestone soil, evidence that the valley was once under ocean, which explains its long cultivated history. The valley’s spine is the eponymous river and its watershed. Landscape architect Robert Thayer describes bioregions as physiographically unique, geographically legitimate, and operative spatial units.10 Shenandoah might fit that portrayal.

Thayer’s depiction emphasizes the importance of scale in bioregional imaginations, founded on the premise that we create ethical relationships when our actions have consequences for others,11 which is always. Loving our neighbors as ourselves, including neighbors we did not choose and maybe are not even human, is easier done when we are close enough to see the effect our lives take through critical feedback loops, such as observing that our energy use exhausts its sources or sustains them, and then having the decision-making ability to change and reorganize the system. Clearly, bioregional boundaries will not completely supplant political precincts in the near future, but partnerships like the Appalachian Transition Initiative are forming across such arbitrary lines to address social and ecological issues.12

Appalachia is one of the most biodiverse regions in North America, but also one of the most socially fragmented and economically poor. In the late nineteenth century, Central Appalachia became the dominant source of coal and timber for the American economy, but increased mechanization, depleted mines, and deforestation forced millions to immigrate north for factory work. Thirty-six of the poorest one hundred US counties are in this region, with the greatest poverty found in rural counties with high coal production. Access to education and healthcare has been limited and the region has high rates of diabetes, cancer, mental health conditions, and widespread drug abuse. The land itself has also suffered from pervasive mining and logging. The abuse of the land is substantially correlated with absentee corporate ownership. State and federal regulations are inadequately enforced and counties are often controlled by a powerful few. People often feel compelled to choose between jobs and the health of the land and themselves. The modern industrial economy has not been the savior for Central Appalachia.

The Appalachian Transition Initiative is a network of almost sixty organizations and associations devoted to a just and sustainable Central Appalachia. They refuse to wait for outside solutions, being instead committed to creative local responses to concentrated power, poverty, and land abuse. Their network is a resource of experiments and stories for the transition of their economies and communities. They propose diverse ways forward like art and place-based education, small-scale business and community healthcare, housing and infrastructure, environmental restoration and renewable energy, and sustainable agriculture and forestry.13

The Appalachian Transition Initiative does not use explicit bioregional language, but it combines affection for place with transformative relationships that constitute the bioregional imagination. Bioregions are never insular because watersheds are part of the global hydrological cycle, climatic domains include multiple bioregions, and nutrients flow where they will like the holy ruach. The Shenandoah River includes two forks almost 100 miles each until they converge for 55 miles flowing northeast into the Potomac River and then southeast to the Chesapeake Bay and into the ocean. Simply by the flow of water, Shenandoah is related to the world. Our actions always affect our neighbors and strangers.

Places are not only connected, but they are always changing. There is no state of place, no “pristine baseline”14 to which we can return. Bioregions are grounded mosaics moving through time that reject the dichotomy between culture and nature: like every other creature, we alter and adapt to our ecosystems, which in turn adapt to and alter us. We are, as historian Dan Flores says, “endlessly recreating place.”15 Purist rejections of change and difference are inattentive to the lively unfolding of place.

Bioregional praxis recognizes that human communities always live within the ecological household. This perception shifts us from a culture of occupation to cultures of reinhabitation.16 The best hope for a sustainable future is reinhabitation, which means committing to the life and health of our places. Occupation controls, but reinhabitation converses. If we observe and interact within context, which also means recognizing that contexts are dynamic and connected, then we will find more appropriate and transformative responses to complex social and ecological patterns. Political theologies of empire, the state, and alienation can prevent diverse people from actually facing one another to address common life. Reinhabitation, dwelling well together in the world’s diverse and dynamic places, begins to envision the transfigured earth.

The River is Reconciliation

The practice of reinhabitation makes possible, and will be made possible by, imaginative interpretations of biblical stories. The stories about Jesus arose from certain places; we make important connections—such as the one Jesus makes between social transformation, care of the land, and welcoming the stranger—when we replace these tales in their social and ecological context.17 The land, which Mahmoud said Jesus loved, is part of those stories in ways that challenge the three prevailing political theologies.

Israelite practices were closely related to the land and seasonal changes. Defining regions was important because harvest times differed based on local climates.18 Jesus’ vision of the kingdom of God grew from the soil, seasons, and stories of the Lower Galilee under imperial rule, a social ecotone where creation and empire overlapped.

The land between the river and the sea, like Appalachia, is a fragile place, but it is also astoundingly fertile with diverse ecological niches close together.19 Biblical scholar Ellen Davis suspects that its “liminal location gave that small corridor of land a gene flow with few parallels worldwide.”20 This funneled strip is like an ecotone, which is the overlapping edge between two ecosystems that results in greater biodiversity.21 Instead of rigid borders, bioregional boundaries are ecotones and mosaic habitats. According to Toby Hemenway, edges like ecotones

are where things happen. Where a forest meets the prairie, where a river flows into the sea, or at nearly any other boundary between two ecosystems, is a cauldron of biodiversity. All the species that thrive in each of the two environments are present, plus new species that live in the transition zone between the two. The edge is richer than what lies on either side.22

We need readings of reinhabitation, because these ancient myths about this ancient place catastrophically influence modern geopolitics. It matters that Zionist leaders like David Ben-Gurion hosted study groups on the Book of Joshua with scholars, politicians, and military officials.23 It matters that the United States has considered itself as both the persecuted New Israel and the triumphant New Rome.24 We should, and can, interpret these stories with a bioregional imagination that tends to the earth and its creatures. Jesus’ homecoming in the Gospel of Luke helps us imagine bioregional engagement with the land and the people in it.

As was his custom, Jesus attends synagogue service on the Sabbath while visiting his folks. He reads from Isaiah that the speaker has been anointed to preach good news to the poor, liberate the oppressed, and proclaim the Jubilee. In a dramatic afterthought, he announces, “Those words are fulfilled right now.” Everyone nods in amazed approval, and maybe the poor in attendance say, “It’s about damn time!” In those days, peasants were subject to multiple layers of colonial taxation, and those who could not pay were evicted from ancestral lands in the wake of wide estates.25 Jubilee envisions a radical social order that preserves the economic viability of agrarian peasants26 through an ethic of abundance and self-restraint.27 Moreover, jubilee suggests that the central political and moral question of land possession is not ownership of the land but care of the land.28 If possession is conditional on care and not ownership, says Davis, then Jubilee challenges not only old states and empires but also the new ones.29

Jesus announces that this ecotone belongs with the people who care for it, not to those who may own it and exploit it. As everyone nods in agreement, Jesus adds that Jubilee is not just for the chosen people, some alienated church set apart. “There were many in Israel with leprosy in the time of Elisha the prophet, yet not one of them was cleaned—only Naaman the Syrian,” who was not just any outsider but a major cog in the “Aramean military machine.”30 Jesus describes the kingdom of God by pairing the tale of an unclean outsider with his vision of the social renewal of Israel, which is like saying that enslaved Africans are more responsible for building America, or that indigenous people are more responsible for democracy than the Founding Fathers, or that Hispanic immigrants who do our dirty work are returning this land to its multicultural roots. Jesus’ listeners try to throw him off a cliff because of his audacious social ecology.

Jesus reminds his enraged audience that welcoming the stranger is deeply compatible with at least some of their political traditions.31 He juxtaposes Jubilee with a leprous foreigner to reinterpret how the kingdom of God rises like leaven in the land. The Jordan River flows through that interpretation in an important way.

Naaman’s Israelite slave girl recommends that her leprous master see the prophet in Samaria, highlighting “a link between invasion and illness as well as between peaceful contact and healing.”32 According to the folk wisdom of the unnamed girl, healing can only “result from a nonmilitary encounter with his Israelite rivals.”33 But the general scoffs at Elisha’s advice to wash seven times in the River Jordan because that watercourse is a trickle compared to the rushing rivers back home. Once again servants, not authoritative advisors, intervene and convince him to perform the ritual. He does not even need the prophet or any priests because the river itself is enough.34 Naaman has crossed the streams of the Jordan twice: once to attack Israel and once again to find healing. This time, Elisha tells the afflicted general to immerse himself in the river that separates, or perhaps unites, Israel and Aram. The Jordan is one of Hemenway’s edges, “places of transition and translation, where matter and energy change speed or stop or, often, change into something else.”35

When Jesus combines the healing of Naaman with the renewal of society, he recognizes that places like rivers are not sites of separation, whether between Israel and Aram, Israel and Arab countries, or Texas and Mexico. Rivers are sites of encounter, boundaries that merge rather than divide. A river is not a wall because, as Naaman found out, by its nature the river is reconciliation: drawing life back together in the watershed. The movements of rivers tell us that strangers are always among us and the familiar always appears in the foreign. The river is the local and the global, the neighbor and the stranger in our midst.

Our attention to the movement of water is related to our treatment of neighbors and strangers. According to Marianne Sawicki, the Herodians operated by a Hellenistic Mediterranean idiom of centralization and marginalization.36 They employed Roman technology in an early pave-and-pipe paradigm that erected massive visible aqueducts that conducted water from faraway streams to urban centers. Such irrigation, which provides plentiful water during droughts or off-seasons, has profound effects on watersheds: groundwater is used faster than rainfall can recharge it, which can cause land to subside and salinization near coasts. Water is borrowed from other places and from the future, and the likelihoods for nutrient leaching and soil erosion are increased.37

In contrast, Sawicki proposes an idiom of circulation and grounding to interpret the indigenous Israelites.38 For them, the heavens poured down water to the earth, where it was grounded by crops and stationary containers, such as cisterns, or circulated through mobile containers, such as channels, both of which pay close attention to the pattern of water through contours, geological features, and vegetation.39 Catching and storing rainfall represents the people’s dependence on the gifts of heaven and the earth.40 Circulation and grounding, Sawicki believes, is a better way to understand Israel’s view of holiness than the prevalent view of separation: “a place is holy when things move rightly within it and, moreover, when it can rectify the trajectory of what crosses it. Thus, what profanes is whatever moves the wrong way.”41 Naaman’s movement through the land is corrected by the circulation and grounding of the watershed. He learns to move differently, from profane control to holy conversation, through reinhabitation.

This is not a quaint comparison between two ancient views. The modern state of Israel controls the Jordan River and 80% of Palestine’s depleting groundwater sources, both of which are channeled to taps in Tel Aviv and farms in the Negev. This diversion, an idiom of centralization and marginalization, has severely diminished the ancient waterway, made essential aquifers extremely vulnerable to salinization and raw sewage, and tightened the Israeli occupation of Palestinian land.42 Water, and how it is used, may determine this conflict,43 as well as many others.

Bioregionalism is the conversation between people and place, and conversations always hold open the possibility for mutual conversion. According to Daniel Kemmis, places can breed cooperation when “people who find themselves held together (perhaps against their will) in a shared place” discover that their best chance for survival is learning to work together.44 Our best chance is to enact Jesus’ blend of Jubilee and watershed transformation.


The good news of the kingdom of God could be interpreted as ecosynthesis, which is the evolution of native and exotic species into new ecosystems in response to novel conditions. These new ecosystems have remarkably beneficial effects by restoring devastated landscapes,45 by reinhabiting the transfigured earth. Imperial occupation from Rome and Jerusalem relentlessly disrupted Galilee, so perhaps Jesus’ particular articulation of the kingdom of God was an imaginative patchwork of observation and interaction within an endlessly recreated, and recreating, place. As Mahmoud said, Jesus loves the land and its people.

Jesus embraces the buzzing biodiversity of the land as a parable for social diversity, an ecosynthesis stitching together Jubilee and the leper in the river. The reconciling river is not just the Jordan, but also the Shenandoah, the Rio Grande, and all the watersheds of the world.46 Reinhabitation uproots nostalgia for Christendom, baptizing the state, and resident alienation. For the kingdom of God is the transfigured earth. The ground beneath our feet is the holy land.

Jonathan McRay grew up in East Tennessee (Central Appalachia) and worked in Palestine and Israel. The author of You Have Heard It Said: Events of Reconciliation, he has an MA in Conflict Transformation. Jonathan and his wife Rachelle, a physician assistant, live with friends on a small homestead in the Shenandoah Valley, where he also works with New Community Project ( an education and demonstration center for permaculture and regenerative gardening; a supportive home for friends recovering from addictions and homelessness (which is all of us to varying degrees); and a project incubator to hatch community building with neighbors, schools, and local associations.


Berry, Wendell. Citizenship Papers: Essays. Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004.

________. Foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis, ix–xiv. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

________. The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1981.

________. Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays. New York: Pantheon, 1993.

Carr, Mike. Bioregionalism and Civil Society: Democratic Challenges to Corporate Globalism. Sustainability and the Environment. Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004.

Darwish, Mahmoud. “We Travel Like Other People.” In Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, edited by Carolyn Forché, 563. New York: W. W. Norton, 1993.

Davis, Ellen F. Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Deloria, Vine. God Is Red: A Native View of Religion. 2nd ed. Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1994.

El Houry, Ramzi. “Water for All: The Case for a One-State Solution.” Aljazeera. January 2012.

Evanoff, Richard. Bioregionalism and Global Ethics: A Transactional Approach to Achieving Ecological Sustainability, Social Justice, and Human Well-Being. Studies in Philosophy. New York: Routledge, 2011.

Falk, Ben. The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012.

Faris, Stephan. “Holy Water: A Precious Commodity in a Region of Conflict.” Orion Magazine. November/December 2011.

Flores, Dan. “Place: Thinking about Bioregional History.” In Bioregionalism, edited by Michael Vincent McGinnis, 43–60. New York: Routledge, 1999.

Freyne, Sean. Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus-Story. New York: T & T Clark, 2006.

Gliessman, Stephen R. Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems. 2nd ed. New York: CRC Press, 2007.

Habel, Norman C. The Land Is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995.

Havrelock, Rachel. River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011.

Hemenway, Toby. Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture. 2nd ed. White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2009.

Holmgren, David. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. Hepburn Springs, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services, 2002.

Horsley, Richard A. Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003.

Howard-Brook, Wes. “Come Out My People!”: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010.

Kemmis, Daniel. Community and the Politics of Place. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990.

Lowery, Richard H. Sabbath and Jubilee. Understanding Biblical Themes. St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000.

Pinches, Charles R. “Stout, Hauerwas, and the Body of America.” Political Theology 8, no. 1 (January 2007): 9–31.

Renew Appalachia.

Sawicki, Marianne. Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus. Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2000.

Spina, Frank Anthony. The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005.

Thayer, Robert. LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003.

Wright, Ronald. What Is America? A Short History of the New World Order. Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2009.

1 Wendell Berry, Citizenship Papers: Essays (Washington, DC: Shoemaker & Hoard, 2004), 135.

2 Mahmoud Darwish, “We Travel Like Other People,” in Against Forgetting: Twentieth-Century Poetry of Witness, ed. Carolyn Forché (New York: W. W. Norton, 1993), 563.

3 Vine Deloria, God Is Red: A Native View of Religion, 2nd ed. (Golden, CO: Fulcrum, 1994), 73.

4 Ronald Wright, What Is America? A Short History of the New World Order (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2009), 15.

5 For an excellent critique of Jeffrey Stout and Stanley Hauerwas along these lines in light of Wendell Berry, see Charles R. Pinches, “Stout, Hauerwas, and the Body of America,” Political Theology 8, no. 1 (January 2007): 9–31.

6 Wendell Berry, foreword to Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible, by Ellen F. Davis (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), xii. Berry has elaborated on Christian theology and the earth in The Gift of Good Land: Further Essays Cultural and Agricultural (Berkeley: Counterpoint, 1981), ch. 24, and in Sex, Economy, Freedom and Community: Eight Essays (New York: Pantheon, 1993), ch. 7.

7 Norman C. Habel, The Land Is Mine: Six Biblical Land Ideologies (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1995), 148, discusses five different, and at times conflicting, biblical land ideologies. He claims that the Hebrew Scriptures have “no monolithic concept of land,” only “diverse images and doctrines of land.” Wes Howard-Brook, “Come Out My People!”: God’s Call Out of Empire in the Bible and Beyond (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 2010), views the Bible as wrestling between the religion of empire and the religion of creation.

8 Daniel Kemmis, Community and the Politics of Place (Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1990), 122.

9 Robert Thayer, LifePlace: Bioregional Thought and Practice (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2003), 19.

10 Ibid., 15.

11 Richard Evanoff, Bioregionalism and Global Ethics: A Transactional Approach to Achieving Ecological Sustainability, Social Justice, and Human Well-Being, Studies in Philosophy (New York: Routledge, 2011), 20.

12 Thayer, 150.

14 Dan Flores, “Place: Thinking about Bioregional History,” in Bioregionalism, ed. Michael Vincent McGinnis (New York: Routledge, 1999), 50.

15 Ibid., 52.

16 Mike Carr, Bioregionalism and Civil Society: Democratic Challenges to Corporate Globalism, Sustainability and the Environment (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2004), 238.

17 “The interest in Jesus as a social revolutionary has led to an incomplete picture insofar as it ignores aspects of his respect for the natural environment also.” Sean Freyne, Jesus, a Jewish Galilean: A New Reading of the Jesus-Story (New York: T & T Clark International, 2006), 25.

18 Ibid., 24.

19 Richard H. Lowery, Sabbath and Jubilee, Understanding Biblical Themes (St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2000), 9.

20 Ellen F. Davis, Scripture, Culture, and Agriculture: An Agrarian Reading of the Bible (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009), 50.

21 David Holmgren, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability (Hepburn Springs, Victoria: Holmgren Design Services, 2002), 224.

22 Toby Hemenway, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, 2nd ed. (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2009), 45.

23 “Ben-Gurion and his colleagues based their new Jewish national myth on a revivification of the conquest, settlement, territorial distribution, and national brotherhood as described in the book of Joshua.” Rachel Havrelock, River Jordan: The Mythology of a Dividing Line (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011), 14.

24 Richard A. Horsley, Jesus and Empire: The Kingdom of God and the New World Disorder (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2003), 137.

25 Ibid., 32.

26 Habel, 97.

27 Lowery, 57.

28 Davis, 102.

29 Ibid., 107.

30 Frank Anthony Spina, The Faith of the Outsider: Exclusion and Inclusion in the Biblical Story (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2005), 76.

31 Havrelock, 16.

32 Ibid., 177.

33 Ibid., 178.

34 Spina, 81.

35 Hemenway, 46.

36 Marianne Sawicki, Crossing Galilee: Architectures of Contact in the Occupied Land of Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity, 2000), 61.

37 Stephen R. Gliessman, Agroecology: The Ecology of Sustainable Food Systems, 2nd ed. (New York: CRC Press, 2007), 4.

38 Sawicki, 61.

39 Ben Falk, The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2012), 85.

40 Sawicki, 100.

41 Sawicki, 34.

42 Stephan Faris, “Holy Water: A Precious Commodity in a Region of Conflict,” Orion Magazine, November/December 2011,

43 Ramzi El Houry, “Water for All: The Case for a One-State Solution,” Aljazeera, January 2012,

44 Kemmis, 122.

45 Holmgren, 262.

46 “I have remembered also that Harlan Hubbard, when a local church asked him for a painting of the Jordan, made them a painting of their own river, the Ohio.” Wendell Berry, forward to Scripture, xii–xiii.

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Watershed Discipleship as Home Mission: Toward a Constructive Paradigm of Repentance

This essay extends a commissioning home into our watersheds as a way of replacement and repentance of the rootlessness affecting North American Christians today. The author traces this rootlessness to the Christendom church and certain destructive theologies that sanctioned colonialism. “Watershed discipleship,” as set forth by theologian Ched Myers, offers a constructive framework for mission within a paradigm of repentance for sins perpetuated by colonial theologies.

During a college internship program, I lived with an Ikalahan-Kalanguya host family in the Sierra Madre Mountains of northern Luzon, the Philippines. I often accompanied my host mother to tend her family’s subsistence farm, where she grew many varieties of sweet potatoes, peanuts, beans, squash, garlic, and ginger. My host father worked as a pastor and community forester, maintaining the dipterocarp, pine, and cloud forests and protecting the people’s traditional “Ancestral Domain” against illegal loggers and other intrusions.

Legal recognition of the Ancestral Domain, also called the Kalahan Forest Reserve, resulted from a secure land tenure agreement, the very first of its kind, between the government of the Philippines and the Ikalahan-Kalanguya people in the 1970s.1 A watershed centrally defines the approximately 36,000-acre Ancestral Domain.2 Flowing into the Magat River, the watershed serves as a sanctuary to more than 150 endangered species of plants and animals.3 The people have decided collectively to protect their watershed, which means that those who live near the sources of water cannot expand their farms, raise livestock intensively, or use chemical pesticides on the land. As a society, they have limited their own potential growth for the sake of the wellbeing of the whole watershed, including those who live downstream.4

My host mother, Aunti Noemi, told me that when her parent’s generation converted to Christianity in the 1960s, they decided to expand their faith instead of their gardens.5 She contrasted their decision with that of the communities outside of the Ancestral Domain who have denuded their once-forested slopes to make room for mono-crop farms for distant markets. This kind of farming has created drastic erosion and mudslides, and local people attribute an increase in cancer in those areas to the heavy use of synthetic chemical inputs.

United Church of Christ missionaries in the Philippines lived and shared a deeply incarnational gospel with the Ikalahan-Kalanguya; importantly, they affirmed and learned from indigenous cultural and ecological values. The Christian gospel resonated with certain Ikalahan-Kalanguya concepts like li-teng that led them to care for their watershed. The Hebrew word shalom is the nearest equivalent to li-teng, a deeply ecological word signifying abundant life for all.6 Because the Good News strengthened certain indigenous cultural and ecological practices, the Ikalahan-Kalanguya have become a model throughout Southeast Asia for their community-based forest management, indigenous educational programs, and their ongoing systems of restorative justice through the tongtongan, or council of elders.

During my six months living with the Ikahlan-Kalanguya, I became increasingly aware of a significant gap in my own life. By age twenty-one, I had already moved ten times, having grown up in a missionary family turned highly mobile family. I became accustomed to the intermingled pain of leaving friends and place and the tingle of excitement at traveling somewhere new. I envisioned myself working overseas someday, living the exhilarating life of a global nomad. No place held any claim over me. I had no desire to limit my life to one place until living within the Ikalahan-Kalanguya Ancestral Domain. There, the people’s love for their particular home opened my eyes and exposed the placeless dreams that scripted my own life goals.

Historically, the Spanish, Americans, and Japanese have all colonized or occupied the Philippines. Over the years, the Ikalahan-Kalanguya people have resisted—in addition to illegal logging—land grabbers, plans for exclusive golf courses set forth by wealthy politicians in Manila, cell phone company satellite towers, and most recently, Australian mining companies.7 Love for the naduntog nakayang, the high mountain forest where the clouds settle in mist around the trees, compelled their resistance.8 Their home was worth defending with their lives. I had to ask myself, what place on earth would I ever put my life on the line for? Sadly, I did not know the answer.

Before I left the Philippines, my host family held a prayer service attended by local elders and friends from my time there. The pastor stood to give me a commissioning: he prayed that I would return home to the US to apply what I had learned with them. This simple and profound “co-missioning” changed my life. It initiated my journey of recognizing my own dangerous rootlessness, and turned me toward home.

Commissioned toward Home

Returning from the Philippines, I felt disturbed by the fact that my own sense of home seemed as distant from me as a foreign land. My own condition, I believe, is not unique, but perhaps reflects the preeminent social-spiritual malady facing North American Christians today. This condition poses a real threat to the church’s cross-cultural witness and mission.

Cross-cultural mission historically has been the “life-blood of the church,” and is necessary for its ongoing transformation.9 Mission from and to all places radically de-centers Christianity from Christendom, and from any one cultural or social group instating their own form of Christianity as a totalizing gospel for all.10 Alan Kreider writes, “After Christendom, missionary sending no longer follows imperial patterns; it no longer goes from Christendom to heathendom; it is, as Samuel Escobar has put it, from everywhere to everyone.”11 However, if the missionary has no sense of belonging to any particular place, mission from everywhere becomes mission from nowhere.

Rootlessness threatens the good news of cross-cultural mission. This rootlessness, observed in the pattern of colonial cross-cultural encounters, defined not only much of Christian mission, but also political conquest, early anthropology, and international commerce to this day. Indigenous people have theorized that what drives this colonizing characteristic for either the nineteenth-century missionary or the twenty-first-century businessperson is the “original trauma” of European displacement and alienation from the land in the colonial era.12 In short, because of this colonial trauma, mission from those who have no sense of home can become a displaced and displacing mission. How can those who do not know a home ever understand or stand with other people’s struggles to defend and protect their homes?13 How can we share and embody a gospel of incarnation if we ourselves have never lived “incarnationally” in any one place?

Christian mission as missio Dei, God’s mission in the world, is not necessarily long-distance or cross-cultural. Alan Kreider writes that the word “missionary,” with its cross-cultural and long-distance connotations, “restricts and limits” our understanding of the missio Dei that sends all Christians into our own lives as witnesses to the Good News of reconciliation in Christ.14 The field of home missions has often applied the logic of long-distance, cross-cultural mission to church work domestically, seeking to share the gospel in ways ranging from short-term mission trips to forming relationships with other cultural groups in a given area. These expressions of mission have emphasized human reconciliation to God in Christ. Yet the fullness of God’s reconciliation also extends to all of creation. As Colossians 1:19–20 says, “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in [Christ], and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.”15

How might the idea of home missions be expanded to encompass this biblical vision of reconciliation of all things in Christ, a vision that necessarily entails facing our own need for reconciliation with our home places? What if, in awareness of historic colonial patterns of displacement, we expanded the traditional meaning of “home missions” as also a “mission home”?

A renewed conception of home mission as a “mission home” necessitates a commitment to a geographically defined place, an understanding of the impacts of sin there, a discernment of the ways God is at work in that place, and how we may join in God’s work for the reconciliation of all things through discipleship of Jesus. For the sake of this essay, I will define home place ecologically as the watershed to which we belong and where our discipleship can be rooted. This watershed may or may not be where we were born or even have lived for most of our lives. The point is that we all live in a place, and so any place, whether in North America or abroad, can be considered a starting place for our mission home.

I believe that the geographic reality of a watershed can provide helpful boundaries for our commitment to home mission as mission home. Whether or not we know it, our lives as humans, along with the lives of all other biota, are inextricably dependent upon watersheds. Mission home into our watershed involves becoming reconciled to a home place. In order to fully commit to our watershed as home mission, however, we must face the sins of the past and present with clear sight, and take on the active work of repentance for the far-reaching devastations of the Christendom theologies that deny any place as home.

Christendom, the Doctrine of Discovery, and Watershed Conquest

Theologian Ched Myers sees Christendom as actively underwriting three harmful theological errors at the root of the crisis of placelessness:

  1. A docetism that privileges spiritual matters over social and ecological ones.
  2. The presumption of human domination over creation.
  3. A theology and politics of presumed “divinely granted” entitlement to land and resources.16

These three main dangerous theologies undergird missionary, colonialist, anthropological, and economically driven projects of exploitation of both people and land. Below I explore the destructive outcomes of one of these theologies, specifically the theology and politics of entitlement encapsulated in what is called the “Doctrine of Discovery.”

The Doctrine of Discovery and its resulting “watershed conquest” provide an exceptionally relevant case study of the tragic outworking of Christendom theologies. Any work toward reconciliation as mission must take into account these exploitative theologies, and begin with repentance as metanoia. Metanoia, translated from Greek as repentance (e.g., Mark 1:4), carries a connotation of changing both mind and action. Thus, repenting of the theologies of placelessness that persist today means recognizing their error, and actively changing direction by seeing a place as home.

Within the Christendom paradigm, mission and colonialism were interdependent forces. David Bosch writes that the word “mission” is “historically linked indissolubly with the colonial era and with the idea of a magisterial commissioning.”17 The mission and dominion of the Christendom church accompanied, furthered, and was furthered by the dominion of Empire. The fifteenth-century church’s Doctrine of Discovery, known as the “law of Christendom,” exemplifies how political and religious conquests were sealed together.18 The Doctrine of Discovery is defined as, “The logic of fifteenth-century Christendom that endowed European conquerors with self-assumed divine title over all ‘discovered’ land and peoples.”19 Through “discovery,” then, land and people were subjugated and their resources served the church and crown.

During the fifteenth century, the Vatican issued numerous papal bulls, official religious decrees that document the “genesis of competing claims by Christian monarchies and states in Europe to a right of conquest, sovereignty, and dominance over non-Christian peoples, along with their lands, territories, and resources during the so-called Age of Discovery.”20 Two papal bulls in particular, Dum diversas (1452) and Romanus pontifex (1455), provided the legal and religious justification for the conquest and subjugation of both indigenous peoples and lands. In fact, Dum diversas explicitly declared the need to convert not only indigenous peoples but also, crucially, the need to convert the land.21 Through conquest and robbery, the forced conversion and “salvation” of people and land were bound up together.

Through the Doctrine of Discovery, the death-dealing theology of entitlement was preserved and enshrined through doctrine and law, and continues today. I will focus on its impacts in the US, though this Doctrine legally legitimated the destruction of land and peoples worldwide. Law professor Robert J. Miller has shown how the Doctrine of Discovery provided justification for the very establishment of the United States. It is directly connected to Manifest Destiny and the “principle of contiguity” that claimed major territories as if they were unoccupied or undefended. The Doctrine of Discovery appears in government documents providing legal basis for the annexation into the US territory of Texas, Colorado, Arizona, Florida, New Mexico, and other states.22 In the 1823 Supreme Court case Johnson v. M’Intosh, the US Senate actually cited the 1493 papal bull Inter caetera as justification for dominion.23 Through the Doctrine of Discovery, the US government repeatedly denied Native Americans full title to their land, making it easier for their impoverishing displacement and loss of land.24 As recently as 2005, legal cases involving Native American land loss can be traced to the Doctrine of Discovery.25 Therefore, the Doctrine of Discovery shapes not only our church history as Christians, but also what it means to be a US citizen today, since the doctrines and theologies of Christendom have been encoded in our nation’s laws.

The Doctrine of Discovery’s “principle of contiguity” is a classic case of entitlement theologies expressed politically, through which watersheds became part and parcel of the conquest of the United States. The principle of contiguity used the geographic scope of large watersheds to expand the scope of colonialism. Robert J. Miller summarizes contiguity as follows:

Under Discovery, Europeans claimed a significant amount of land contiguous to and surrounding their actual discoveries and settlements in the New World. . . . Moreover, contiguity held that the discovery of the mouth of a river gave the discovering country a claim over all the lands drained by that river; even if that was thousands of miles of territory. For example, refer to the boundaries of the Louisiana Territory and Oregon country as defined by the United States.26

Contiguity explains why Lewis and Clark raced to discover the mouth of the Columbia River. Rather than the expedition of the heroic, morally neutral explorers I learned about in public education, theirs was a race to take the Northwest.27 Through contiguity, the discovery of the mouth of a river created a claim over the entire drainage system of the river and adjacent coast.28 At the heart of the practice of the Doctrine of Discovery, then, was watershed conquest, as exemplified in the seizure of the Louisiana Territory (the entire western drainage system of the Mississippi) and also Oregon country (the drainage system of the Columbia River).29

What does the Doctrine of Discovery and its resulting watershed conquest have to do with us as North American Christians in mission today? I would argue that Christendom’s theological and legal frameworks continue to hinder our moral vision, blinding us to the importance of place. Especially for those of us who have benefitted historically from European conquest, land seizure, and settlement, it is difficult to see the value of land and primacy of home to other peoples. For cross-cultural and long-distance missionaries, we may unknowingly carry with us theologies of displacement that colonial-era Christendom grafted into Christianity, and upon which the US was founded.

I believe that the legacy and continued impacts of the theologies that sanctioned watershed conquest may be healed by watershed discipleship, a home mission into our watersheds and a way of living out the gospel of reconciliation there. The rest of this essay will set forth two hallmarks of watershed discipleship, repentance and re-placement.

Repentance as Missional Paradigm Shift

Many Christian denominations and faith groups have publically issued statements of repentance of the Doctrine of Discovery and have rightly lamented its effects on indigenous people and the land.30 These confessions of repentance and repudiation point the way forward for other denominations to see how Christendom theologies continue to hinder true reconciliation, and to practice the witness of painful truth-telling. An understanding of repentance as a paradigm for mission greatly aids this most necessary ecclesial process of metanoia.

Missiologist David J. Bosch draws from Hans Küng’s study of theological paradigm shifts to describe significant transitions in the church’s understanding of mission throughout Christian history. He describes the contemporary church in mission as facing a paradigm shift characterized by the loss of Christianity’s dominant position in the world, a “profound feeling of ambiguity” about the Enlightenment god of Progress, an emerging ecological worldview coupled with the necessity of working for peace with justice, and an ecumenical posture toward other faiths that challenges the superiority of Christianity, among other factors.31

In recent decades, the paradigm of reconciliation as mission has gained significant traction in response to the above changes listed by Bosch. The emphasis on reconciliation is certainly a crucial response to the missio Dei, and a corrective to future-oriented salvation narratives of mission. Matthew D. Lundberg writes:

William R. Burrows reminds us that reconciliation is actually an ancient paradigm for mission that is receiving much-needed renewal today since it improves significantly upon the de facto images of “conversion” and “expansion” that characterized most mission efforts during the past five centuries—centuries that overlap, significantly, with the age of conquest, colonization, and varied forms of imperialism.32

Lundberg sees reconciliation as the “ultimate” call of the church-in-mission, yet naïve and impossible without the “penultimate” thing of repentance.33 In order to move toward the fullness of reconciliation offered in Christ, the North American church must embrace a posture of repentance. Lundberg names the legacies of colonialism and racism as examples involving Christian culpability that require a paradigm of repentance:

In these kinds of situations where the church is not a neutral bystander but is in some way guilty of wrongdoing, the church certainly cannot demand or insist upon reconciliation. It can only take up the stance of honest and wholehearted repentance, albeit a repentance that flows from the church’s belief in God’s foundational act of reconciliation in Jesus… such a paradigm of repentance not only enables the broader and ultimate reconciling dynamic of the gospel to remain in view, but it does so in a way that is appropriate to the church’s responsibility for at least some of the world’s ills.34

The paradigm of repentance requires the church to seek not only confession of wrongdoing, but to work toward right relationship with the land and its peoples past and present. This is not a separatist project; full repentance entails a socio-political commitment to the kind of reconciliation that attends to reparations of what has been lost and stolen. Myers writes, “To concede that we are part of the problem is a crucial hedge against both self-righteousness and escapism. But it is not enough: We must also imagine how we can be part of the resolution, the healing and the reconstruction.”35

Repentance, then, as much as it is a turning away from the ways of death and sin promulgated by the Christendom church, must also involve a turning toward. To paraphrase Kathleen Dean Moore, every time we say no to a way of destruction, we say yes to something much more beautiful and life sustaining.36 We need a way to live out both an emphatic No! to what we turn away from, and a productive Yes! to the way of life we turn toward. I propose that the Yes! proclaimed through the framework of watershed discipleship can help to constructively shape a paradigm of repentance.

Watershed Discipleship as Home Mission

Watershed discipleship is an antidote to the deep sense of placelessness lying behind the Doctrine of Discovery and watershed conquest. Watershed discipleship, as set forth by Ched Myers and other animators of this vision, is a way of re-placement.37 Its framework invites Christians to re-place our theology, our readings of Scripture, and our spiritual practices in our bioregions, defined by their source of life in the watershed.

Watershed discipleship calls disciples of Jesus to also become disciples of our particular places. The watershed, what permaculturalist Brock Dolman calls “the basin of relations,” encompasses ecological, social and political realities and relationships. One might imagine a watershed as a bathtub holding the cities, land, people, animals, and the rest of creation where a particular body of water drains.38 This geographically-bound vision points to a way of seeing a place as home, a way to more faithfully live the gospel in a particular place while remaining integrally connected to all other places. Contrary to popular understandings, a “local” focus does not cut people off from a global vision. Wendell Berry writes:

There is no such thing as a ‘global village.’ No matter how much one may love the world as a whole, one can live fully in it only by living responsibly in some small part of it. . . . We thus come again to the paradox that one can become whole only by the responsible acceptance of one’s partiality.39

Living and loving within limits, then, are the narrow way toward wholeness everywhere and for everyone.

Watershed discipleship prevents Samuel Escobar’s vision of mission from everywhere from reverting to a displaced and displacing mission from nowhere. In workshops and writings on watershed discipleship, Myers often paraphrases Baba Dioum, a Senegalese environmentalist, in the following dictum:

  • We won’t save places we don’t love.
  • We can’t love places we don’t know.
  • And we don’t know places we haven’t learned.

We cannot be part of God’s work of salvation in this world without being part of the work of learning, knowing, and loving a home place. It goes without saying that we cannot claim and be claimed by a home place without long-term presence in a particular place.

Perhaps no biblical verb has been as significant for the history of mission as that of “go” in the Great Commission of Matt 28:18–20. “Therefore go and make disciples of all nations” (Matt 28:19a). Mission has been understood in terms of this sending out and leaving home for the sake of spreading the gospel. In order to fully live into a missional paradigm of repentance, I believe watershed discipleship offers the North American church an opportunity to alternatively interpret the commission to “go” in light of our context of rootless mobility, alienation, and displacement.

Watershed discipleship provides a way of repentance through going into our own particular places, turning away from the transmission of a false gospel that denies rootedness and incarnation. Just as Jesus was immersed into his own watershed in the Jordan River (in a baptism of repentance), I believe we must go deeper into the oft-unknown land and waters of our home places, and become disciples of Jesus through learning, knowing, and loving our own watersheds.40


I began with a personal story of a commission home I received from indigenous brothers and sisters in the Philippines. For me, answering the question, what place would you give your life for? meant seeking home in a watershed closer to my birthplace in California. A return to one’s birthplace may not be the answer that others discern. As I was writing this essay, I received word from Ikalahan-Kalanguya friends that Pastor Delbert Rice, North American missionary and cultural anthropologist in the Philippines for over 60 years, had just passed away at his home in the Ancestral Domain.41

Pastor Rice was an example of a faithful witness who poured out his life for the li-teng— the shalom—of the Ikalahan-Kalanguya. He would often recall hikes with tribal elders, learning about the forests, wildlife, and the stories and songs about their place. His work with the elders in the 1970s led to the crucial establishment of the Kalahan Educational Foundation (KEF), which successfully challenged land-grabbers in league with the Marcos dictatorship. Even in his last years, Pastor Rice worked passionately with the KEF to strengthen organic agriculture in the region and to resist foreign mining companies that continue to take indigenous lands. He modeled watershed discipleship by re-placing himself deeply within the watershed of the Ancestral Domain. We have everything to learn about this kind of discipleship from Pastor Rice, as well as the people and place he gave his life for.

In conclusion, as I have attempted to live out my own commissioning, I have begun to realize the shared roots between my own individual lack of home place and the larger historic placeless theologies of Christendom. For Christendom’s Doctrine of Discovery, the exploitative conversions of the land and indigenous people were bound together. As church, we need a framework whose transformative potential adequately counters this understanding of conversion. We need a resurrection way more powerful than the death grip of colonialism, one that sees following Jesus into our home places as a way of liberation for all people and land.42

Could it be that watershed discipleship is the commissioning that North American Christians are called to receive and to practice today—that we are now being commissioned home in a final reversal of Christendom? For people whose history is marred by placeless theologies and the erasure of memory, is it possible to repent of the ways of watershed conquest through practicing watershed discipleship? Through the power of the One who will be with us “to the very end of the age” (Matt 28:20), I believe it is not only possible, it is our only way home.

Katerina Friesen currently lives in the St. Joseph River watershed where she is an MDiv student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary in Elkhart, IN.


Berry, Wendell. The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba. Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2003.

Bosch, David JTransforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission. American Society of Missiology Series 16. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991.

DeMocker, Mary. “If Your House Is on Fire: Kathleen Dean Moore on the Moral Urgency of Climate Change.” The Sun 444 (December 2012): 6.

Dolman, Brock. Basins of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watersheds. 2nd ed. Occidental, CA: Water Institute, 2008.

Dumlao, Artemio A. “Report: Mining Harms Nueva Vizcaya’s Resources.” The Philippine Star, September 23, 2013.

Encyclopedia of American Indian History. 4 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008.

Encyclopedia of American Indian Issues Today. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2013.

Escobar, Samuel. The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone. Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003.

Finlayson, Rob. “In Memoriam Rev. Delbert Arthur Rice.” Agroforestry World. May 11, 2014.

Frichner, Tonya Gonnella. “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has Served as the Foundation of the Violation of Their Human Rights.” Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues. Preliminary study submitted to the UN Economic and Social Council, New York, February 3, 2010.

Howell, Brian M., and Jenell Williams Paris. Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010.

Kreider, Alan, and Eleanor Kreider. Worship and Mission after Christendom. Waterloo, ON: Herald Press, 2011.

Lundberg, Matthew D. “Repentance as a Paradigm for Christian Mission.” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 45, no. 2 (March 2010): 201–17.

Miller, Robert J. “The Doctrine of Discovery: The International Law of Colonialism.” Indigenous Peoples Forum on the Impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, March 30, 2012.

________. Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny. Lincoln: Bison Books, 2008.

Miller, Robert J., Jacinta Ruru, Larissa Behrendt, and Tracey Lindberg. Discovering Indigenous Lands: The Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies. New York: Oxford University Press, 2012.

Myers, Ched. “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: Re-Placing Ecological Theology and Practice.” Conrad Grebel Review 32, no. 3 (Fall 2014): forthcoming.

________. Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians. Mary­knoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994.

Newcomb, Steve. “The Doctrine of Discovery.” Video of presentation, The Indigenous Peoples Forum on the Doctrine of Discovery, The Arizona State Capitol House of Representatives, Phoenix, AZ, March 23, 2012.

The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). “What is the Doctrine of Discovery? Why Should it Be Repudiated? Factsheet.” New York Yearly Meeting, 2012.

Roxas, Elizabeth. “The Ikalahan: Sustaining Lives, Sustaining Life.” Asia Good Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Practice Project. The Philippines: Environmental Broadcast Circle Association, 2006.

Walls, Andrews F. The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith. Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1996.

Woodley, Randy. Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision. Prophetic Christianity. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012.

World Council of Churches. “Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery and its Enduring Impact on Indigenous Peoples.” WCC Executive Committee, Bossey, Switzerland, February 17, 2012.

1 Elizabeth Roxas, “The Ikalahan: Sustaining Lives, Sustaining Life,” Asia Good Education for Sustainable Development (ESD) Practice Project (The Philippines: Environmental Broadcast Circle Association, 2006),

2 This essay uses the word “watershed” in its ecological sense. The most commonly used definition of watershed comes from 19th century scientist and geographer John Wesley Powell,, who defined it as “that area of land, a bounded hydrologic system, within which all living things are inextricably linked by their common water course and where, as humans settled, simple logic demanded that they become part of a community.”

3 Roxas.

4 Pastor Delbert Rice, ecologist and missionary-anthropologist, would often remark that the lowland peoples, who often discriminated against upland indigenous peoples, had yet to send a “thank you” note or payment for the care the Ikalahan-Kalanguya exercised over the watershed.

5 To read more about the conversion to Christianity of the Ikalahan-Kalanguya, see Brian M. Howell and Jenell Williams Paris, Introducing Cultural Anthropology: A Christian Perspective (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2010), 167–68.

6 Randy Woodley, Shalom and the Community of Creation: An Indigenous Vision, Prophetic Christianity (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2012), writes that a deeper understanding of shalom as analogous to the “Harmony Way” native to indigenous peoples around the world opens opportunities for greater reconciliation between Westerners, indigenous peoples, and the land.

7 See, e.g., Artemio A. Dumlao, “Report: Mining Harms Nueva Vizcaya’s Resources,” The Philippine Star, September 23, 2013,

8 Italicized lines come from an Ikalahan “love song” for place, the theme song for the indigenous high school, Kalahan Academy: Di naduntog nakayang, babalaw na ko-lapan. “In the high mountain forests, the clouds come down…”

9 Andrews F. Walls, The Missionary Movement in Christian History: Studies in the Transmission of Faith (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1996), 1–25, quoted in Matthew D. Lundberg, “Repentance as a Paradigm for Christian Mission,” Journal of Ecumenical Studies 45, no. 2 (March 2010): 201.

10 I distinguish Christianity from Christendom, a paradigm that came to prominence when Emperor Constantine made Christianity the official religion of the Roman Empire. Samuel Escobar, The New Global Mission: The Gospel from Everywhere to Everyone, Christian Doctrine in Global Perspective (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 73, defines Christendom as a social order that “presupposed the dominance of Christianity in Western societies, as well as a certain degree of influence of Christian ideas and principles on the social life and international policies of nations.”

11 Alan Kreider and Eleanor Kreider, Worship and Mission after Christendom (Waterloo, ON.: Herald Press, 2011), 51; citing Escobar.

12 Maori sovereignty advocate Donna Awatere observes that the “original trauma” of European displacement and alienation from the land contributed to the displacement of indigenous peoples from their lands. Ched Myers, Who Will Roll Away the Stone? Discipleship Queries for First World Christians (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1994), 342.

13 Ibid., 344.

14 Kreider, 44.

15 Scripture quotations are from the New International Version.

16 Ched Myers, “From ‘Creation Care’ to ‘Watershed Discipleship’: Re-Placing Ecological Theology and Practice,” Conrad Grebel Review 32, no. 3 (Fall 2014): forthcoming.

17 David J. Bosch, Transforming Mission: Paradigm Shifts in Theology of Mission, American Society of Missiology Series 16 (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 1991), 228.

18 Tonya Gonnella Frichner, “Impact on Indigenous Peoples of the International Legal Construct Known as the Doctrine of Discovery, which has Served as the Foundation of the Violation of Their Human Rights,” Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues (preliminary study submitted to the UN Economic and Social Council, New York, February 3, 2010), 6,

19 Encyclopedia of American Indian History, vol. 1 (Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2008), s.v. “Doctrine of Discovery.”

20 Frichner, 7–8.

21 Steve Newcomb, “The Doctrine of Discovery” (video of presentation, The Indigenous Peoples Forum on the Doctrine of Discovery, the Arizona State Capitol House of Representatives, Phoenix, AZ, March 23, 2012),

22 Robert J. Miller, et al., Discovering Indigenous Lands: the Doctrine of Discovery in the English Colonies (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012), 67–88.

23 Encyclopedia of American Indian Issues Today, vol. 2 (Santa Barbara, CA: Greenwood, 2013), s.v. “Indian Sovereignty.”

24 The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), “What is the Doctrine of Discovery? Why Should it Be Repudiated? Factsheet,” (New York Yearly Meeting, 2012),, states:

Johnson v. M’Intosh (1823) made “discovery doctrine” explicit in US law. The court denied individuals permission to buy land from American Indian tribes [nations]. Under the doctrine, the court assumed only a sovereign United States could acquire the land, should the Indians choose to sell. In this decision, Indians were given a limited right of “occupancy” without full title to their own land, and could thus lose their land if they could not prove continuous occupancy. The doctrine was reframed in secular terms, in which the criterion for sovereignty became “cultivators of land” instead of “Christians.”

25 E.g., the 2005 US Supreme Court case City of Sherrill v. Oneida Indian Nation of N. Y.,, drew from the Doctrine of Discovery to limit the sovereignty of the Oneida Nation of New York.

26 Robert J. Miller, “The Doctrine of Discovery: The International Law of Colonialism,” Indigenous Peoples Forum on the Impact of the Doctrine of Discovery, March 30, 2012,

27 Robert J. Miller, Native America, Discovered and Conquered: Thomas Jefferson, Lewis & Clark, and Manifest Destiny (Lincoln: Bison Books, 2008), 99–100.

28 Ibid., 108.

29 I credit Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary professor Dr. David Miller for first pointing out the contradictions between watershed discipleship and the Doctrine of Discovery’s version of what I call “watershed conquest.”

30 Denominations that have repudiated the Doctrine of Discovery include the Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, various Unitarian Universalist churches and Quaker organizations, as well as the World Council of Churches. See World Council of Churches, “Statement on the Doctrine of Discovery and its Enduring Impact on Indigenous Peoples” (WCC Executive Committee, Bossey, Switzerland, February 17, 2012),

31 Bosch, 188–89.

32 Lundberg, 201–17.

33 Ibid. Lundberg draws on Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s understanding of “ultimate” and “penultimate” things.

34 Ibid.

35 Myers, Who, 338.

36 Mary DeMocker, “If Your House Is on Fire: Kathleen Dean Moore on the Moral Urgency of Climate Change,” The Sun 444 (December 2012): 6,

37 More information on watershed discipleship can be found online at

38 Brock Dolman, Basins of Relations: A Citizen’s Guide to Protecting and Restoring Our Watersheds, 2nd ed. (Occidental, CA: Water Institute, 2008).

39 Wendell Berry, The Art of the Commonplace: The Agrarian Essays of Wendell Berry, ed. Norman Wirzba (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 2003), 118.

40 It is not my desire to prescribe where a home watershed (or multiple watersheds) might be for readers. Some may not have the option of choosing where to live due to work, family ties, or other determining factors. The point, however, is to begin the journey of reconciliation with a specific place.

41 For more about Pastor Delbert Rice, see Rob Finlayson, “In Memoriam Rev. Delbert Arthur Rice,” Agroforestry World, May 11, 2014,

42 “The liberation of the people depends utterly upon the liberation of the land itself.” Ched Myers, Binding the Strong Man: A Political Reading of Mark’s Story of Jesus, 20th Anniversary ed. (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis, 2008), 339.